Alcatraz! Alcatraz!: The Indian Occupation of 1969-1971

The “Rock” was taken over by Indian occupation for almost 19 months in 1969, a fact that has floated on the periphery of my brain but more recently demanded getting more information. And so I sought out what I assumed was a first-hand account of an occupier, but Adam Fortune Eagle was more involved in tactics on the mainland during that time, negotiating press and supplies and all the logistics to support the effort. All that remains today are fading bits of paint that proclaim Indian Territory, and I recently read that the preservation folks at the island are carefully retouching these artifacts to keep them fresh against the weather???

The first invasion occurred about a year after the notorious prison closed, on March 8 1964, lasting four hours, by a group of Sioux who claimed under a 1868 treaty that Alcatraz was their land, the treaty permitting non-reservation Indians land the government had once taken for forts and other uses then later abandoned. The media was heavily involved in getting the word out, not only about the invasion, but also about its underlying goals to test the validity of the 1868 treaty and to call attention to the 600+ treaties broken by the U.S. government.

Two events made the 1969 occupation come to life after the 1964 attempt. The SF Board of Supes voted in favor of a ridiculous plan to commercially develop Alcatraz as a huge apartment and restaurant complex… a “space-age colossus, complete with an underground space museum.” Yikes. This helped draw support for the Indians once they occupied, by everyone with a brain who didn’t like the commercialization of the bay. Also, the SF Indian Center on Valencia St. burned down on Oct 10, 1969 (arson? accidental?). Everyone looked toward Alcatraz as the redemption for this disaster.

At least in Fortunate Eagle’s account, the Indians were super-savvy about the media. He was at a party with a bunch of media-types where he broke the news of the upcoming Nov 9 invasion, issuing an embargo that the news not be broken until that time. Fortunate Eagle credits this tipping off about the takeover to an investment that paid off by supplying the media with background information and alerting them to the scoop.

The attempt by day on Nov 9 ended up failing, with them only able to charter a boat to take them in circles around the island. A few brave souls jumped off the boat and attempted to swim to the island, but it was mostly a failure. Later that night, a fraction of the original group landed on the island: fourteen people. Lovely sexism: “One was Richard Oakes; three were women.” Unnameable, of course, although I later dig out that one of the women was LaNada Means (War Jack). These were eventually pulled off the island the next day.
The third and final attempt happened on Nov 20, lasting almost 19 months. The launch party convened at No Name Bar in Sausalito, 90 gear-laden Indians waiting for Peter Bowen to ferry them across to Alcatraz. Successfully installed, the government attempted to blockade the island, only to find that the local citizenry loved nothing more than to sneak supplies past the blockade.

Finally, we get some recognition for the women. Dr. Dorothy Lone Wolf Miller was a Blackfoot Indian and also the director of the Scientific Analysis corporation, opening her offices on California Street for a temporary headquarters of Indians of All Tribes, maintaining accounting/finances/records/grant proposals/education/health care for the island occupiers. The first Thanksgiving dinner that year was catered by a restaurant in Ghiridelli Square– Bratskellers, who ferried over food and tables for the celebration.
Creedence Clearwater Revivial donated a boat which was critical to shuttling people, food, supplies to and from Alcatraz. The boat mysteriously sank soon after two mysterious fires were set on the island (hello FBI).

Fun and games were over on June 11, 1971, when the U.S. government stormed the island then wrapped its shores with chain link fences and guard dogs. U.S. Attorney Browning claimed that the theft of copper wire on the island amounting to $600 was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Delightful account, although I’d like to supplement with words from women that are completely suppressed from this account, perhaps from LaNada Means. And now I’ll probably think twice about wanting to join the sunrise celebration on Alcatraz by the natives, not wanting to trespass on their ceremony but always having been curious about it.

Random bits:
* There’s a great photo in the book of a map of the U.S. with a headress-wearing chief proclaiming that Indians discovered America.
* The United Council fundraised during the first Memorial Day picnic and campout at the Hayward Bret Harte school, and convinced the superintendent that they needed the front lawn to pitch tents. In the middle of the night, it was raining “from the ground up” into tents when the sprinkler system went on.