We Hold the Rock


By 1969, in the midst of the American Civil Rights movement, two separate groups of American Indians from the San Francisco bay area contemplated the idea of seizing the rocky island of Alcatraz. The prison which made the island famous had shut down more than six years earlier, and local officials debated what to do with the iconic island. When the San Francisco American Indian Center in San Francisco burned down in October of that year, the Indian activists galvanized and, citing the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, they formed the multi-tribal group Indians of All Nations, and developed plans to occupy The Rock.

The plan met with resistance. About 75 Indian protestors gathered on Pier 39 on November 9, 1969, to announce their action to the press, but the hired boats didn't show. They hired another boat, but the captain refused to land, saying he would only ceremonially circle the island. Five men dove in and swam to Alcatraz, but they were removed by the Coast Guard and returned to the mainland. The demonstraters hired a third boat to bring them back that night, but that Captain suddenly pulled away from the dock after only 14 of the 25 occupiers on that trip could disembark; they were also soon discovered and returned to San Francisco. Finally, in the early morning hours of November 20, the fourth attempt coalesced and more than 90 Native Americans landed on Alcatraz. The island's caretaker, Glenn Dodson, who was 1/8 Cherokee, told the landers than they were trespassing, winked, and then showed the landing party to the warden's house. It was there that the occupiers established their headquarters.

The Coast Guard again attempted a removal, but the activists refused to budge. US President Richard Nixon, whose administration was still reeling from public relations disasters having to do with the Vietnam war and the civil rights protests, ordered that the government forces not use force against the Alcatraz occupiers. The General Services Administration sent a representative with an ultimatum to leave, which the Indians also disregarded. Richard Oakes, a charismatic Mohawk ironworker from upstate New York serving as the spokesman for the Indian occupiers, called in to the San Francisco Department of the Interior office, and left a message expressing their motivation and intentions. He ended with the words, "We seek peace." 

The "Un-Thanksgiving"

The "Un-Thanksgiving"

Meanwhile, the occupation flourished. Celebrities such as Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda were shown around the island by Jim Thorpe's daughter Grace. Donations poured in from Indians and non-Indians alike. The occupiers celebrated "un-Thanksgiving" on the island less than a week after the November 20 landing. The occupiers developed a system of self-government and worked tirelessly repairing and improving their new living space. Plans were developed to turn the island into an Indian-centric complex of buildings including a spiritual center, a university, and a museum. News spread of the occupation, and thousands of Indians—singles and families of all ages, from every nation, including many who had never met an Indian from a different tribe before—journeyed to San Francisco to join in. About fifteen members of the radical American Indian Movement journeyed from Minnesota to take part in the demonstration; one of them, movement veteran Dennis Banks, noted that "there was a lot of happiness amid those dripping walls". Creedence Clearwater Revival donated $15,000 which the organization Indians of All Nations used to purchase their own boat, subsequently named the Clearwater. Oakes declared the words that became the rallying cry for the occupation: "We hold The Rock".

Yvonne Oakes

Yvonne Oakes

The government refrained from further attempts to dislodge the Indians, but over time, the occupation developed problems. The island, with no electricity or clean water, was becoming an increasingly harsh place to live. Protesters trickled back to the mainland and those who remained began squabbling with each other. Tragedy struck when Richard Oakes's 13-year-old stepdaughter Yvonne, fell from an unfenced pier onto a concrete slab and died; Oakes and his family soon left the island. Non-Indians from the hippie culture began to move on to the island. In June 1970, a fire gutted the lighthouse and several other buildings; the government blamed the Indians, but the occupiers, citing the distance between the four damaged buildings, blamed the blaze on government agents. Public safety concerns arose because the island's lighthouse and the fog signals were necessary for the safety of passing ships. Coast Guard inspectors were met with armed Indians demanding water, two supertankers collided nearby and dumped oil into the bay, and someone from the island fired a metal-tipped arrow at a crowded passing tour boat. Even though the oil spill had nothing to do with the occupation, public opinion turned pretty sharply against the Indian occupiers.

The occupation lasted 19 months and 9 days, and on June 11, 1971, the last 15 Indians were peacefully escorted off of Alcatraz. Through sheer determination and persistence, and with no deaths from violence, two small groups of like-minded Indian activists displayed a bold and powerful statement about their plight to the world stage, and elevated the prominence of American Indian civil rights. As a direct result, at least ten major US government policy shifts improved the education, health, and finances of American Indians.

Links and Sources:
Alcatraz is Not an Island, www.pbs.org, retrieved March 15, 2012.
"Alcatraz, Indian Land", by Ben Winton, in Native Peoples Magazine, Fall 1999.
"An Occupation Worth Applauding: Celebrate Un-Thanksgiving", by Mickey Z. on MRZine, retrieved March 16, 2012.
The Occupation of Alcatraz Island: Self-Determination and the Rise of Indian Activism, by Troy R. Johnson, University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement, by Dennis Banks with Richard Erdoes, University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.
You Are Now on Indian Land: The American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz Island, California, 1969, by Margaret J. Goldstein, Twenty-First Century Books, 2011. Photos of activists and of Yvonne Oakes both appear in this book; photographers are unknown.
Photo of sign by Wikipedia user Tewy, and was taken from Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of "You Are On Indian Land" by Michelle Vignes, from the Bancroft Library at the University of California-Berkeley.

"We Hold the Rock", © 2015 by James Husband.