How did the occupation of Alcatraz Island by the IOAT impact the future of Native American activism?

Written by Evan Coburn

When a group of 89 Native Americans calling themselves “Indians of all Tribes” (IOAT) landed on Alcatraz Island on November 20, 1969, their intentions were clear: to take possession of the island based on the “right of discovery,” a doctrine within an 1868 Sioux Treaty that gave Indians the right to unused federal property on Indian land. So, despite much protest from government officials to their landing on the island, they did it anyway. In their statement to the press, the IOAT claimed,

…We, the native Americans, re-claim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery…. We will purchase said Alcatraz for twenty-four dollars in glass beads and red cloth…. Our offer of 1.24 per acre is greater than the 47 cents per acre the white men are now paying the California Indians for their land…” 1

While this may sound like just some sarcastic comment that the IOAT used to mock and throw shade towards the US government, the impact of this speech was far greater than just making some government officials somewhat salty. Really, the words of the statement aren’t what’s important; why the Native American people took over Alcatraz isn’t of any concern to us. The real importance lies in the fact that the IOAT physically gave a statement expressing the issues of Native Americans to the press, and then they openly ignored some orders from the US government to enact a long-term takeover event. Both of these actions set a precedent for Native American activism in the future and helped shaped the Red Power Movement into what we know it to be today.

One of the biggest complaints of the Alcatraz takeover was that the IOAT focused too much on media attention. However, it was also seen as one of the takeover’s biggest accomplishments. Before this time, much of mainstream American were unaware of the issues affecting the Native American population (in fact, a quick Google search will show you that it’s hard to find evidence of any Native American activism before Alcatraz). The takeover, however, worked to change that reality. According to film and TV actor Benjamin Bratt, the Alcatraz takeover was“… a seminal event in American history that brought the plight of American Indians to the world’s attention…” 2 Beyond the press reporting the news of the takeover all over the world, other factors helped bring attention to the Alcatraz takeover. The fight to rectify Native American injustices was also helped by “…celebrities like Jane Fonda, Dick Gregory and Marlon Brando, all of whom visited the island.”3 Prior to the Alcatraz takeover, Native American issues and people were featured very little in mainstream news and media, and so it was easy for the average American to be ignorant about everything that was happening to them. The Alcatraz takeover served to bring attention of the Native American struggle to the world at large. This concept of seeking media attention was continued in future events of the Red Power Movement during this time period. For example, one event called “The Trail of Broken Treaties” that took place starting in the fall of 1972 was created specifically for the purpose of gaining media attention. During the trail,

…seven caravans would leave Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Rapid City, and Denver and trek east, visiting communities, reservations, and spiritual sites, while picking up additional Native peoples for the demonstration. The activists planned to converge on Washington D.C. during the final week of the 1972 presidential election between George McGovern and Richard Nixon. 4

Like the takeover of Alcatraz, the Trail of Broken treaties was designed intentionally to be as flashy and (dare I say) obnoxious as possible for the sake of gaining media coverage. The use of multiple caravans leaving multiple cities at the same time and going literally across the country from the west coast to the east coast shows that these activists wanted to be seen, heard, and recorded for the world over to see. In addition, the timing of the trail to coincide with the final week of election while in Washington DC, where multiple sources of media are converged and worried about who’s going to the be the next president, supports this intentionality; after all, if they want to report news so bad, why not do them a favor and give them some real news to report? All in all, the Alcatraz Island takeover contributed to many future Native American activist activities specifically tailored to getting media attention, which was not something that the activists were especially concerned about before.

Besides resulting in Native Americans seeking media attention more than they had in the past, the Alcatraz occupation also seemed to convince Native American activists to take on more long-term series of activism as opposed to smaller scale events that went directly against the wishes of the United States government. Alcatraz itself was the first example of these kinds of larger-scale events, where “…Native Americans, numbering anywhere from 15 to 1,000, occupied Alcatraz for the next 19 months…” 5 Prior to this, many of the Native American activism campaigns were relatively small and short. For example, when the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) held their first major conference in Chicago to protest American government policy in 1961, it only lasted for a short 8 days. 6 However, following Alcatraz, events such as what would later be referred to as “The Second Wounded Knee” occurred. Wounded Knee II (for the sake of brevity) took place in 1973 at the Pine Ridge reservation of the Sioux people in South Dakota, where the original Wounded Knee had taken place almost a century prior in 1890. It was a long-term siege against the current Sioux chair Richard Wilson, who was thought to be conspiring against his people with the government. Wilson’s opponents, other Sioux Native Americans, who were “…supported by 250 AIM members from outside Wounded Knee, led a siege for 71 days…” 7 It might also be important to note that hostages were taken, and the result was a full-scale shoot-out between Native American activists and US government officials, with multiple deaths on both sides. This longer and more confrontational occupation reflects the changing nature of Native American activism started by the Alcatraz occupation; while not as long as the 19 months spent on the island, 71 days of occupation was still significantly longer than any other campaign that Native Americans had pursued in the previous years. While it resulted in more bloodshed and violence, the longer occupation time started by Alcatraz also meant more media attention for the movement, and also allowed the US government to understand just how serious the Native American activists were about taking back and asserting their rights and liberties as American people. Because I mean, after all, it’s hard to ignore a group of people who are literally shooting at you.

All in all, the occupation of Alcatraz Island had some large implications for the future of the Native American activism movements following it in the 1970s. Because of it, Native American people appeared to act in a more directly confrontational manner towards the US government. In doing so, they were able to spread the issue of their situation across the world in the hopes of finally doing something about their centuries of oppression.

NOTES

1 FoundSF. “Alcatraz Proclamation.” Accessed May 4, 2017. CLICK FOR WEBSITE

2 CNN. “1969 Alcatraz takeover ‘changed the whole course of history.’” Accessed May 4, 2017. CLICK FOR WEBSITE

3 Mobile Ranger. “Occupy Alcatraz: When the Red Power Movement Landed on Alcatraz.” Accessed May 4, 2017. CLICK FOR WEBSITE

4 Framing Red Power. “Trail of Broken Treaties Overview.” Accessed May 4, 2017. CLICK FOR WEBSITE

5 Gale Databases. “Native American Activism: Alcatraz and the Red Power Movement.” Accessed May 4, 2017. CLICK FOR WEBSITE

6 Digital History. “Declaration of Indian Purpose.” Accessed May 4, 2017.  CLICK FOR WEBSITE

7 Red Power Media. “Indigenous Issues and Resistance.” Accessed May 4, 2017. CLICK FOR WEBSITE

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