Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the occupation of Alcatraz Island by a group of Native Americans calling themselves the Indians of All Tribes. As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month in November, we look back at this most visible and momentous event in Native activism.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 19, 1969, after several previous unsuccessful attempts, 89 people set out for the island; 14 evaded a Coast Guard blockade and landed to begin the occupation. At its height there were 400 people on the island.
The occupiers were protesting their treatment under the “Indian termination” policy, which ended the U.S. government’s recognition of tribal sovereignty and pushed to relocate and assimilate Native Americans. The occupiers accused the U.S. government of breaking numerous treaties.
By late May 1970, the government had cut off all electrical power and all telephone service to the island. Left without power and fresh water, and in the face of diminishing public support and sympathy, the number of occupiers began to dwindle. On June 11, 1971, after 19 months of occupation, a large force of government officers removed the remaining 15 people from the island.
The occupation of Alcatraz had a direct impact on federal Native American policy and, with its visible results, established a precedent for Native activism. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon changed federal policy, encouraging Native self-determination instead of termination. The Indian termination policy was ended, and of the more than 100 tribes terminated during this era, many regained federal recognition.
Today, Alcatraz is part of the National Park Service. Golden Gate National Recreation Area is commemorating the anniversary with 19 months of special events and an exhibition: “Red Power on Alcatraz, Perspectives 50 Years Later.” Click here for information about the commemoration on Alcatraz and related events in other locations.