Taking Back the Rock: Indians of All Tribes’ Fight for Self-Determination (by Chelsea Fusco)


California Common Core Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies: Grade 9-10

1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending
to such features as the date and origin of the information.

2. Determine the central ideas or information
of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

3. Analyze in detail a series of events described in a text; determine whether earlier events caused later ones or simply preceded them.

4. Analyze how a text uses structure to emphasize key points or advance an explanation or analysis.

5. Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.


This lesson is designed to examine the Occupation of Alcatraz and its role in Indian self-determination. This lesson will ask students to explore the history, motivation and goals of the occupation as well as its outcomes. Students will engage with primary sources to gain a deeper understanding of Native American history, specifically their various negotiations with the federal government over property rights.


This lesson will ask students to explore the history, motivation and goals of the occupation of Alcatraz in relation to the movement. If your class has already touched on civil rights movements of the 1960s, this is a good time to review past material. Before delving into the depths of this topic students should be presented with an overview of what white America refers to as, the European discovery of America. Engage with students as to whether this narrative contradicts their previous impressions of this history. Students will engage empathetically with primary texts and deconstruct some of the myths that surround the history of native people.

Essential Understanding

The denial of physical space is crippling to collective identity. The take back of Alcatraz Island, prompted by the US federal government’s reoccurring severance of property rights, became a politically charged symbol for Indian self-determination.

Essential Questions

1. What was the significance of the occupation of Alcatraz?

2. How did relocation inadvertently create a Pan-Indian movement?

3. What were the federal government’s motivations for termination?

4. What features of Alcatraz island made it a symbolic choice for the occupation? In what ways did the island become a politically charged symbol for Native people?

5. In what ways did a Pan-Indian identity benefit the movement?

6. How did the rhetoric of the Alcatraz Proclamation lead to self-determination?


Pan-Indian: a philosophy and movement promoting the unity of Native American people reqardless of tribal affiliation

Tribal Sovereignty in the United States: the inherent authority of indigenous tribes to govern themselves within the borders of the United States of America The U.S federal government recognizes tribal nations as “domestic dependent nations” and has established a number of laws attempting to clarify the relationship between the federal, state, and tribal governments.

Termination: laws and polices of the federal government with the intention of assimilating Native American people into white culture. Application of termination would include the immediate end to government recognition of sovereign tribes.

Self-Determination: social movements, legislation, and beliefs by which the tribes in the United States exercise self-governance and decision making on issues that affect their own people, in the case of Native people self-determination refers specifically to the dissolve of the reservation

The American Indian Movement: an activist group, founded in 1968, formed for the promotion of Native American social rights that tends to focus on the proper enforcement of land treaties and maintaining Native American culture


The Red Power movement that began in the 1960’s grew out of a climate of radical political activism. The movement grew out of hundreds of years of mounting oppression at the hands of the U.S government.

A series of cases brought to the Supreme Court in the 1830s lead Chief Justice Marshall to define Native Americans tribes as a “ward dependent upon a guardian.” 1 They also defined all lands formally belonging to Native Americans as falling within the U.S government’s authority. “Chief Justice Marshall, enshrining the archaic and self-serving concept into U.S. law, argued the doctrine gave title ‘to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possessions.” 2 The Supreme Courts decision invalidated any land rights Native Americans had from hundreds to thousands of years prior to European discovery. This would be the precedent under which the federal government would enact the Termination Policy. The collective unease and restlessness felt by Native Americans throughout the country would eventually take the form of occupation and negotiations centered around property rights.

In 1868 Alcatraz Island’s isolated position made it suitable for a military prison. As a military prison, it was used to house American Indian prisoners who in some cases were not soldiers, but simply Indian leaders who did not support the United States take-over of their tribal governments. They were imprisoned without the benefit of legal proceedings, such as a trial. In 1934 this land was deemed suitable for a maximum-security federal petitionary. 3 According to the IAT, the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) between the U.S and the Sioux, all retired, abandoned, or out of use federal land was to be returned to the Native people from whom it was stolen. However, in 1962 when Alcatraz closed as a federal prison the land was not returned to the Sioux. For over a decade American Indians had fought and lobbied for that land to be returned and used as an Indian cultural center, however they were unable to convince U.S policy makers of the social merits and thereafter Alcatraz Island became a politically charged symbol of the injustices Native Americans had suffered at the hands of the U.S government.

The federal government made continual efforts to assimilate American Indians into mainstream U.S culture, culminating in their decision to terminate the sovereignty of federally recognized tribes in 1953. The Termination Act included the cessation of federal recognition and all federal aid that accompanied tribal designation. The federal government viewed this final sweep of assimilation as economically advantageous; the policy was answered by a pan-Indian movement aimed at self-determination. The United States used the advancement of minority rights as a guise for termination, positioning Native American attempts to preserve cultural tradition against the interest of national unity and economic prosperity.

“Emboldened by a hard-fought victory to establish the first American Indian Studies program at San Francisco State College in 1969, local Indian activists were organized and desirous of a large-scale protest event.” 4 In its immediate context, the Bay Area Indian community desperately needed leadership, hope, and unity. Federal relocation programs had fractured Indian societies across America by taking individuals out of their traditional reservation communities and placing them in unfamiliar urban landscapes with promises of employment. Federal relocation did not provide the Native Indians with humane living conditions or adequate economic support; as a result Indian communities were plagued by poverty and alcoholism. People on the reservations had experienced unemployment rates as high as ninety percent and so members of the relocation program were desperately looking for ways to escape the poor health services, corrupt institutional education system, and general impoverished conditions that they had been channeled into. The unintentional benefit of the relocation programs was that it brought together American Indians of various tribes who could unite under a common narrative. Disillusioned by the unlivable conditions combined with the widespread activist spirit coming out of UC Berkley and surrounding areas led to a Native American uprising. This collective dubbed themselves the Indians of All Tribes and the taking of Alcatraz Island become the figurative symbol for Pan-Indian identity.

On the morning of November 9, 1969 a small group of Bay area Indians adorned in traditional dress rallied on Pier 39 for what organizer Adam Norwell thought would be a brief symbolic take-over that might gain media attention. While Norwell had envisioned the day as a media stunt, Richard Oaks a student activist leader and member of Student Council of American Natives (SCAN), had a more radical agenda. He jumped from the Monte Cristo and swam the remaining 250 yards to the shore of Alcatraz. The following day Oaks would recite the Alcatraz Proclamation addressing the General Services Administration and claiming Alcatraz Island by Indian right of discovery.


Transcript of Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868)
Alcatraz Proclamation and Letter
Ricahard Oaks delivers the Alcatraz Proclamation
Special Message to the Congress on Indian Affairs, Richard Nixon


Assign as homework the night before the start of this unit that students conduct independent research about the political climate of the 1960s specifically in the Bay Area.

Day 1
Begin with a short lecture: to better engage student’s participation and understanding begin by talking about other civil rights movements happening in the 1960s that may have inspired or allowed the Red Power movement to gain momentum. Use this discussion as a segue into the distinction between other minority groups’ fight for civil liberties verses the Native Americans’ fight for sovereignty. This distinction will be best illustrated through a comprehensive overview of Native American history. Pass out the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), at this time if your class has not already addressed relocation programs, spend a few minutes explaining the ways in which Native people were uprooted from their homes and families, the boarding schools they were forced to attend, and the conditions of the reservations to which they were sent. Allow students a few minutes to read over the Treaty and discuss it with their neighbor. Students should identify an irony within the text as it offers a standing relationship with native people we know will not be upheld. Bring your students’ attention to the portion of the Treaty that promises excess lands owned by the federal government to be returned to the native people from whom they were taken. This will illustrate your later points.

For homework assign that students research the history of Alcatraz Island and that they read the Alcatraz Proclamation. Give students a number 1-4 which will correspond with a question they should try to answer at home.

1. What features of Alcatraz Island made it a symbolic choice for the occupation?
2. What is the significance of signing the Proclamation, “The Indians of All Tribes” (IOAT)?
3. In what way is satire used as a tool in this text?
4. How are the demands of the IOAT different from other minority groups in the 1960s?

Day 2

Begin class by watching Richard Oaks deliver the Alcatraz Proclamation. Give students 10-12 minutes to meet with the people who were assigned like questions and discuss their findings. Allow each group a few minutes to present their responses and open the room up for discussion.

Try and steer the conversation towards some of the following points:

1. The rhetorical proclamation represented Pan-Indian agency and a utopic vision that would never be realized by the federal government. The proclamation, addressed to “the Great White Father and All His People” began, “[w]e, the Native Americans, re-claim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery.” The Proclamation rhetorically and satirically articulated various Indian demands but more importantly the Proclamation acted as a symbolic unrest of all Indian tribes throughout the country. The Proclamation acknowledged that Alcatraz was the opportune place for their take-over because the conditions resembled the reservations they had grown accustomed to living on. “What place could more adequately represent the real living conditions of Indian Country than a desolate prison? The island would be fitting and symbolic of the great lands once ruled by free and noble Indians.”

2. The primary significance of the seizure of Alcatraz was that it gave Native people a physical space in which to further develop and reclaim their cultural identity. Because the San Francisco Indian Center had burned down there was no place for Bay Area Indians to assemble and discuss tribal life. The IOAT tribes proposed that Alcatraz be used as a cultural center, that an American Indian spirit center, center of ecology, Indian training school be constructed and that prominent members of the Native American communities act as leaders and organizers for the project. The Proclamation emphasized a return to traditional Indian life, focused on spirituality and nature. The ecology center would be geared towards combatting pollution, returning the island to habitable conditions, and desalinating the water. This notion of living off the land is symbolic because it represents the sovereignty the Indian people were asking for.

Go through the list of Indian demands made during the occupation and address why each one would have been beneficial to the preservation and validating of Indian culture and tradition. Make connections between these demands and the Native American histories discussed in Day 1.

Pass out Nixon’s Special Message on Indian Affairs and give a short lecture about the end of termination and the movement towards self-determination.

Ask the class if they feel the occupation of Alcatraz was a success? Try and provoke a discussion that illustrates that although the concrete demands of the Proclamation were not answered by the federal government that the act itself greatly enhanced the movement.

“The success or failure of the occupation should not be judged by whether the demands of the occupiers were realized. The underlying goals of the Indians on Alcatraz were to awaken the American public to the reality of the plight of the first Americans and to assert the need for Indian self-determination. As a result of the occupation, either directly or indirectly, the official government policy of termination of Indian tribes was ended and a policy of Indian self-determination because the official US government policy.” 6

Works Cited
1.PRYGOSKI, PHILIP J. “From Marshall to Marshall The Supreme Court’s Changing Stance on Tribal Sovereignty.” The Supreme Court’s Changing Stance on Tribal Sovereignty. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2015.

2. Johnson v. McIntosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823).

3. California Historical Society, San Francisco

4. Kelly, Casey Ryan. (2009). The rhetoric of Red Power and the American Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island (1969-1971). Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy, http://purl.umn.edu/54605, 18

5. Warrior and Smith, Like a Hurricane, 16-17

6. Johnson, Troy and Donald L. Fixico. The American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz Island: Red Power and Self Determination.

Additional Sources

1. Timeline of Key Events

2. Alcatraz is Not an Island, PBS Overview

3. A Native American Power Movement: Digital Histories

4. President Reagan’s American Indian Policy Statement

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