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American Indian Movement


On November 9, 1969, a group of Native American supporters, led by Mohawk Richard Oakes, chartered a boat and set out to symbolically claim the island of Alcatraz for "Indians of all tribes." By November 20, the gesture had turned into a full-scale occupation that ultimately became the longest prolonged occupation by Native Americans of a federal facility or federal property.

Early use of Alcatraz Island by indigenous peoples is difficult to reconstruct. Ancient oral histories seem to support the view that at one time Alcatraz was used as a place of isolation for tribal members who had violated some tribal law or taboo and were exiled or ostracized for punishment. Earlier or concurrently, the island changed hands several times during Spanish and Portuguese explorations, but ultimately it became federal property and in time became the site of the infamous federal prison once operated there.

Many of the Indian occupiers of November 1969 were students recruited by Oakes from UCLA, who returned with Oakes to Alcatraz and began to live on the island in old federal buildings. They ran a school and daycare center, and began delivering local radio broadcasts that could be heard in the San Francisco Bay area.

Initially, the federal government placed an effective barricade around the island and insisted that the group leave; it did, however, agree to an Indian demand for formal negotiations. The talks accomplished nothing, however, as the Indian group insisted on a deed and clear title to the island. The group continued occupation and the federal government insisted they depart but took no aggressive action to remove them. Officially, the government adopted a position of non-interference and hoped that support for the occupation would fade. The FBI and Coast Guard were under strict orders to remain clear of the island and media attention began to dwindle.

The occupation continued all through 1970, but by this time, internal problems among the indigenous group caused the occupation to lose momentum. Student recruits left to return to classes at UCLA and were replaced by urban recruits, many of whom had been part of the San Francisco drug and hippie culture of the time. Several rose in opposition to Oakes's leadership on the island, and Oakes ultimately left after his teenaged stepdaughter fell to her death in a building stairwell.

After several months of hostile occupation, the federal government shut off electric power to the island and removed the water barge that had been supplying fresh water to the occupiers. A fire broke out, and both sides blamed the other for the loss of several historic buildings. Splintered leadership on the island resulted in the loss of a common voice with which to negotiate with the government. When the occupiers began stripping the remaining buildings of copper wiring and tubing, the press turned on them and began publishing stories of assaults, drugs, violence, and the trial of three Indians found guilty of selling 600 pounds of copper.

With government patience growing thin, then-president RICHARD NIXON finally approved a peaceful removal plan, to be conducted with as little force as possible and when the least number of people were on the island. On June 10, 1971, FBA agents, armed federal marshals, and special forces police removed five women, four children, and six unarmed men from the island.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Air weapon to Approximation of lawsAmerican Indian Movement - History, Alcatraz, Trail Of Broken Treaties, Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge, Later Years