“To the Great White Father and his People” – The Native American Occupation of Alcatraz Island (by Nicole Hourie)

Title – “To the Great White Father and his People” – The Native American Occupation of Alcatraz Island

Standards – Designed for grade 11-12 students.

Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies –

(Key Ideas and Details)

  1. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

(Craft and Structure)

  1. Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.

(Integration of Knowledge and Ideas)

  1. Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.
  1. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies

(Text Types and Purposes)

  1. (a) Introduce precise, knowledgeable claim(s), establish the significance of the claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that logically sequences the claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.

Overview – This lesson focuses on the Native American Occupation of Alcatraz Island. Students will be asked to analyze a primary source from the occupation. Here they should explore the Native American issues identified by the Indians of All Tribes (IAT) and how they are tied back to broader underlying problems. They will also investigate what the IAT was able to achieve through an occupation strategy.

Framework – Prior to the student activities, students should first have read all of Alcatraz! Alcatraz! by Adam Fortunate Eagle. In addition, teachers should give a lecture that includes a very brief summary of the history of Native American-U.S. relations, information on the types of issues being faced by Native Americans at the time of the occupation, the types of activism and organization occurring at the time (both broadly and specific to Native Americans), and the facts of the occupation.

Students will then be asked to critically analyze a primary source, looking at content, structure, language, and tone to understand the root problems being addressed by the text, the proposed solutions, and the effectiveness of an occupation strategy. This will be a collaborative effort in which students work in small group and then share their conclusions with the entire class. In this way the class will have access to a variety of ideas and perspectives.

Essential Understanding – There are three central topics of understanding that students are expected to know. First, they should understand the underlying problems that contribute to the several specific issues listed in the document – 1) the forcibly dependent relationship between Native Americans and an oppressive, white-supremacist government and 2) the American public’s lack of awareness of Native American issues and their place in American history. They should also understand the connection between this forcibly dependent relationship and the Indians of all Tribes’s (IAT) self-determination framework. Second, students should understand what the IAT were able to accomplish through an occupation strategy – 1) the occupants were able to construct their own narrative in which they reversed the typical power-dynamics seen between Native Americans and the U.S. government, 2) the island they chose to occupy became a visible symbol of both the oppressive, imperialistic truths of the American government as well as the rebirth of native peoples, and 3) it gave Native Americans a physical space to exercise their foundational value of self-determination through self-governance and Indian-ran institutions. Subsequently, students should have an understanding of the occupants’ goals – 1) to enhance Native American visibility on a national scale, 2) to demand that their rights to land and resources be fulfilled, and 3) to achieve a level of self-determination.

Essential Questions – 

  1. What is the function of the treaty in the Proclamation?
  • What is the tone? Does the tone suggest that the treaty is a legitimate offer, or that it is a means to convey a bigger message?
  1. What are the issues identified in the text?
  • What are the specific issues listed?
  • Can these issues be tied to a broader underlying problem(s)? If so, what?
  1. What was their activist framework?
  • What were their central values and ideas?
  • What were their primary goals?
  1. According to the third section of the Proclamation what has the IAT identified as the solution to Native American oppression?
  1. What is an occupation strategy able to accomplish?
  • What does the Proclamation indicate is achievable through this strategy?
  • Would other strategies be able to accomplish the same things? If so, would these     other strategies be as effective? Why or why not?

Glossary – 

Indian reservations – A legal designation of land to be managed by a Native American tribe under the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The BIA is an agency of the U.S. federal government.

Urban IndiansNative Americans who live in urban areas, either as a result of migration or relocation under the termination policies of the 1950’s. During the time frame of the Alcatraz Occupation, many urban Indians had been born or at some point lived on a reservation. The prominent activist groups at the time were primarily composed of people who identified themselves as urban Indians. Note that in this context the word “Indian” is referring to Native Americans.

Indian termination policy (mid-1940’s – mid 1960’s) – A set of policies that ended the U.S. government’s recognition of tribal sovereignty on reservations. Reservations would be liquidated and Native Americans would be relocated to urban areas in which they were expected to pay taxes and follow U.S. laws. The intent of the policy was to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream American Society, reduce government responsibility for tribes, and eliminate government expenses for providing resources to tribes. The policy sparked a large rise in American Indian activism.

Self-determination – The freedom of a group people to determine the ways in which they will be governed. In other words, this group has complete control over the politics, economy, and social aims of that given community.

Introduction – On November 20, 1969, eighty-nine Native Americans identified as Indians of All Tribes (IAT) began occupying Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. For the nineteen months to follow it would be seized as Indian land in a demonstration for the rights of American Indians. The occupiers’ demands included the return of Alcatraz to Native Americans and adequate funding to build and operate a number of institutions geared towards educating Indian youth, advancing job skills, and reviving native culture and traditions.

The occupation arose during a tumultuous time in U.S. social and political life. Some of the organizations and movements operating at the time include but is not limited to the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power, La Raza, the Chicano movement, the New Left, Anti-war groups, and Third World strikes. At the same time a new spirit of political militancy surfaced amongst Native Americans, largely in response to the “termination policy” of the 1950’s. As defined previously, termination policy was a set of policies that ended the U.S. government’s recognition of tribal sovereignty on reservations and led to the relocation of many Native Americans to urban areas. The government promised Indians that, with relocation to urban areas, Indians would have greater resources and employment opportunities. Instead, many found themselves in urban ghettos, jobless and living in extreme poverty.

As a result, several Indian rights organizations, many of which were led by college students, emerged in the early 1960’s. One such group was the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) in which the rhetoric of Indian self-determination can be traced to. Another group, the United Native Americans (UNA), was founded during the summer of 1968 in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many of the Alcatraz occupiers were a part of this group and were strongly influenced by its political framework. The UNA followed a Pan-Indian, democratic, grass-roots model that had the primary goal of promoting Indian self-determination. All of these values were adopted by the Alcatraz occupants and greatly informed their goals and central message.

Perhaps one of the most important documents produced from the occupation is “The Alcatraz Proclamation.” Here the IAT lists numerous oppressions that Native Americans had endured both historically and within the context their daily lives. They also propose several establishments that would greatly benefit native peoples educationally, economically, and culturally. In this class we will be analyzing the document in three sections – 1) the IAT’s proposed treaty, 2) their list of reservation conditions, and 3) their plans for the island.

Although by the end of the nineteen months the occupation had been fractured by lack of resources, addiction, and leadership conflicts, their movement is often considered one of the most successful Indian protests of the twentieth century. The Alcatraz occupation inspired a number of other Indian occupations and protests. Also, it succeeded in bringing attention to Indian rights issues on the national level, forever altering the way Native Americans saw themselves and fueling their efforts to further exercise self-determination. The occupation is additionally believed to have led to several changes in federal policies, including the end of termination. In the years following the occupation, Congress passed a number of legislation supporting tribal self-rule. Not to mention, federal funding increased in areas including Indian health-care, education, and addiction rehabilitation.

Materials – 

“The Alcatraz Proclamation to the Great White Father and his People” by Indians of All Tribes, 1969


(Can also be found in Alcatraz! Alcatraz! by Adam Fortunate Eagle, pp 44-47)


Day 1

Prior to this class, students should have read Alcatraz! Alcatraz! The book should take approximately 3-4 days for them to read. When assigning the reading be sure to tell them to annotate in the margins, underline important moments in the text, and mark terms or concepts they didn’t understand.

Lecture – Give a lecture following the guidelines provided in the “Framework” section. Also note that much of this information can be found in the “Introduction” section. (30 minutes).

Class Discussion – After the lecture give students the opportunity to ask any questions that they may have about the reading or the lecture. (15 minutes)

Assignment – Give each student a copy of “The Alcatraz Proclamation” to read and annotate for the next class.

Day 2 –

Class Reading – Have the read “The Alcatraz Proclamation” out loud, “pop-corn” style.

Group work – Split the class into a series of groups. First divide the class into thirds for each section of the text (1. the treaty, 2. reservation conditions, and 3. plans for the island). If the thirds consist of more than 6 students, split them into groups of 3-5 (depending on class size). Give each group a worksheet to complete in class that corresponds with the text section they have been given. The purpose of this worksheet is to give them some guidance for analyzing a primary source and get students thinking about the essential understandings listed previously. (25-30 minutes).

For section 1, the worksheet should include the following questions:

  1. What is the tone of this section, and what does it indicate about the purpose of the treaty? Support your answers with specific examples from the text.
  1. What are the specific issues implied in this section, and can these issues be tied to a broader underlying problem? If yes, explain.
  1. How can this treaty be seen as an achievement for the Alcatraz occupants? In what ways is it a source of empowerment and what message is it trying to convey? Support with textual examples.

For section 2, the worksheet should include the following questions:

  1. The first statement of this section goes as follows: “We feel that this so-called Alcatraz is more than suitable for an Indian reservation, as determined by the white man’s own standards.” Closely analyze this statement. For instance, what does the word “so-called” suggest about the native view of Alcatraz and why is it significant that they say “as determined by the white man’s own standards”?
  1. What is the tone of this section, and what does it indicate about the perspective of the writers? Support your answers with specific examples from the text.
  1. What are the specific issues implied in this section, and can these issues be tied to a broader underlying problem? If yes, explain.
  1. What does item nine of the ten-point list suggest about their expectations of the occupation, and what does this expectation suggest about the goals of the occupation?
  1. What does item ten of the list reveal about what the occupants wish to achieve through the occupation?

For section 3, the worksheet should include the following questions:

  1. What is the tone of this section and how does it differ from the tone of the first two sections? Why does this change occur? Support with textual evidence.
  1. There are four institutions listed in this section that the IAT would like to establish on the island. How do these institutions provide solutions to the several problems mentioned throughout the document (consider both the literal function of these institutions as well as how they are being ran)?
  1. They also discuss the establishment of an American Indian Museum. What underlying problem(s) does this museum address?
  1. Within the context of this section, what does an occupation strategy achieve? What could the occupation accomplish that another activist strategy (i.e. marches, sit-ins, etc.) could not have done as effectively?

Assignment – Outside of class students should meet with their group and organize a formal presentation of their observations and conclusions from the worksheet. This presentation should only be a few minutes in length. Their presentations should be well-organized, articulate, and supported with textual evidence.

Day 3 –

Presentations and Class Discussion – Have a representative of each group present what they have observed and concluded in their section. Students should be talking notes on what they say. Once all the groups have gone, facilitate a discussion that organizes all of the key points into a format similar to the “Essential Understanding” section. Ask discussion questions such as “What can you identify as the two underlying problems presented in the text,” “What are the major accomplishments that came out of the occupation and could they have been achieved through another activist strategy,” and “What were the primary goals of the IAT?”

Additional Sources:

Eagle, Adam Fortunate. Alcatraz! Alcatraz!. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1992.

Johnson, Troy R. The Occupation of Alcatraz Island; Indian Self-Determination and the Rise of Indian Activism, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996.

Johnson, Troy, Joane Nagel, and Duane Champagne. American Indian Activism; Alcatraz to the Longest Walk. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

PBS. “Alcatraz is Not an Island.” PBS. 2002. http://www.pbs.org/itvs/alcatrazisnotanisland/occupation.html

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