For Indigenous Peoples Day, Tribes Return to Alcatraz 50 Years Later
The Stop Mauna Kea and Standing Rock occupations owe a debt to the legacy of an intertribal takeover that occurred 50 years ago, raising the visibility of Native American rights’ violations.
In the 1969 Occupation of Alcatraz, 79 Native American activists, most of them students from tribes across the country, took possession of an abandoned prison on a forlorn rocky island jutting out of California’s San Francisco Bay. “We took the rock,” they radioed to the mainland. They held it for 19 months.
This was during the assimilation and termination era, when the U.S. government decided that if it couldn’t change Native peoples into its own likeness, it would erase the tribes and let the cities absorb their citizens until they disappeared into the mainstream. This new movement, Indians of All Tribes, or IAT, started in the Bay Area as Native Americans became increasingly separated from their cultures.
“In 1969 we didn’t have any cultural centers, any urban Indian health clinics, any organizations at all,” says Eloy Martinez, a Southern Ute activist who had arrived on Alcatraz on November 20, 1969, the very day IAT took control of the island. “They gave [reservation] Natives a bus ticket, enrolled them in welding or plumbing classes and then cut them off as soon as they got their first paycheck. A lot of people ended up on the street here in Oakland.”
Now 50 years later, a new generation of Indians of All Tribes is paying homage to that earlier movement with the Alcatraz Canoe Journey planned for Indigenous Peoples Day on Oct. 14, which San Francisco renamed last year from Columbus Day.
They want to pay particular attention to the climate and ecological crises already driving Indigenous communities from their homes in the Arctic, the rainforest and on small island nations, and demonstrate how Indigenous values offer solutions to combating climate change and the loss of biodiversity.
“With all the problems we are facing today, whether that be climate change or the return of hate and racism, the message of the Alcatraz Occupation is as important today as it was 50 years ago,” Martinez says. “The original occupiers had vision and courage, and both of those are more important now than ever. The planet is in trouble, and we want to inspire a new generation of youth leaders. That’s what this canoe journey can do.”
As part of the Indigenous Day celebration, traditional tribal canoes, some constructed of tule reeds, others hand-carved dugouts from cedar trees, will arrive in the Bay Area from tribal nations as far north as British Columbia and as far west as Hawaii.
The canoes will depart Aquatic Park at dawn and circumnavigate Alcatraz Island to reclaim the former federal prison as a symbol of Indigenous rights. Upon their return, canoe families and visiting communities will join those from the Bay Area to share songs, stories, and dances. Cultural protocol will be interwoven with the story of the Alcatraz Occupation.
Indians of All Tribes had decided in 1969 that the decommissioned Alcatraz penitentiary qualified for reclamation by Native people under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie between the U.S. and the Lakota. The 100-year-old agreement stipulated that all retired, abandoned or out-of-use federal land could be returned to the Native people who once occupied it. On the rock, they envisioned a cultural and educational center for Native peoples, says Martinez, who is helping to organize this modern-day version.
“We didn’t think we were going to last there for very long,” he says. “To us, we were making a statement: We are still here. And then Thanksgiving came, and 1,000 people showed up.”
Over the 19-month occupation, about 30,000 people came and went, Martinez says. Federal marshals forcibly ended the peaceful occupation on June 11, 1971.
“Up to that point, Native Americans had been invisible,” Martinez says. “We got visibility for our issues.”
Julian Brave NoiseCat, a writer and member of the Camin Lake Band (Tsq’escen) of British Columbia, says the occupation was a landmark moment for Indigenous peoples.He helped to organize the canoe journey and related events, “to honor this history so that we can carry forward the occupiers’ legacy for the next 50 years as we face new challenges, the climate crisis chief among them.”
San Francisco renamed Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples Day in 2018, joining eight states and 130 other cities nationwide.
The city’s first female African American mayor, London Breed, acknowledged in the city’s proclamation the widespread historic brutality by California against the diverse Indigenous peoples in that state. Their horrific destruction was rooted in a “war of extermination” called for in 1851 as the state’s official policy that “will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected.”
The Bay Area is traditional Ohlone tribal territory. Ohlone elder Ruth Orta will welcome the Indigenous canoe families and communities, as well as the public, to Aquatic Park on behalf of her people who are working to reclaim their identity and traditions.
“We survived a genocide, and we are still right here,” Orta told Brave NoiseCat. “This is where we came from. My mother and grandmother were here their entire lives.”
Orta said it hurt that people don’t even know they are there. “The people of the world—they need to know we are here. I am so honored to welcome these canoes from far and wide.”
The many legacies of the occupation that this canoe journey will honor can’t be underestimated, Martinez said. The occupiers found strong public support for Native American rights, and federal negotiators met with them several times. On July 8, 1970, President Nixon announced a new policy of “self-determination without termination” for Native Americans.
Natives left Alcatraz inspired to start positive movements elsewhere. Martinez said that when Wilma Mankiller, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma was at Alcatraz, the Cherokee Nation had no running water or sanitation. “When she returned home, she told the feds, ‘You give us the materials and we’ll do the work ourselves,’” he says.
Pit River tribal members returned to their homelands in Northern California and agitated for the return of their land from PG&E—and got it, Martinez says.
And in Seattle, Bernie Whitebear and his newly formed organization, United Indians of all Tribes, succeeded in taking over the decommissioned Fort Lawton in 1970 with assistance from Richard Oakes, leader of the Indians of All Tribes.
They were able to make a move before the city of Seattle could purchase the property and brush them off. Their group negotiated for 20 acres, and built what today is the Daybreak Star Cultural Center.
Yet, Martinez says, “many of the conditions that compelled us to take over Alcatraz in 1969 are still with us today: missing and murdered Indigenous women, high suicide rates, alcoholism, poverty, and poor health.”
As part of this commemoration, the Canoe Journey will co-present a series of talks in October and November. The series also includes Alcatraz Is Not an Island, a special issue of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Open Space magazine edited by Julian Brave NoiseCat.
Ed Archie NoiseCat, of the Canim Lake Band in British Columbia and a noted artist, was the first to envision the Alcatraz Canoe Journey. Ed NoiseCat, who lives in Western Washington, said he’s been involved in Canoe Journeys since their inception and credits his Salish heritage and the activism by tribes in the Pacific Northwest for inspiring himself and others.
He sees the Alcatraz Canoe Journey as a unifying event for all tribes in California and across Turtle Island (North America). In addition to inviting tribal canoes from far and wide they have invited all tribal nations to send their tribal nation’s flag.
Martinez says: “I want this journey to encourage our Bay Area youth the same way Alcatraz did my generation and the same way the annual Tribal Canoe Journey does for Native nations in the Northwest every year.”
Terri Hansen is a member of the Winnebago tribe and a journalist focusing on climate adaptation and resilience.