Alcatraz is far more than a 22-acre island in San Francisco Bay, far more than the location of a former federal prison, and far more than a cursory tourist destination. Fifty years ago, it became a site of Native American activism that forever changed government policy and asserted the organizing power of a united Indigenous people.
On November 20, 1969, a group of Native American students landed on Alcatraz Island, launching a 19-month occupation based on an established legal principle of reclaiming abandoned federal lands for Native use. Their claim came after years of watching the U.S. government terminate the status of over 100 tribes and remove approximately 2,500,000 acres of trust land from protected status.
The young leaders of the occupation, including LaNada Means and Richard Oakes, cannily turned the paternalistic language of the American government into pointed media moments. The activists proclaimed the cold and windy island “more than suitable as an Indian Reservation, as determined by the White Man’s own standards.”
“It would be fitting and symbolic that ships from all over the world, entering the Golden Gate, would first see Indian land, and thus be reminded of the true history of this nation,” Oakes read for news cameras. “This tiny island would be a symbol of the great lands once ruled by free and noble Indians.”
Their goals were not just symbolic, but practical. The San Francisco Indian Center burned to the ground just a month prior to the occupation; the organizers proposed Alcatraz as a site for a new cultural center, a place to educate, preserve and reestablish Native American ways.
KQED’s archival footage, along with shots taken by Doris Purdy (then an employee of the Bureau of Indian Affairs), and a few clips from Sacramento’s KCRA News, tell a story of an idealistic group of young people, members of tribes spread across the continent, who gathered on Alcatraz to challenge not just the conditions of 1969, but centuries of cultural erasure. —Text by Sarah Hotchkiss