Occupation of Alcatraz Poster
by Josh MacPhee
It was the autumn of 1969. Thousands of American Indians occupied the abandoned remains of Alcatraz, the federal penitentiary that housed America's most notorious criminals until closing in 1963. Much of the graffiti from 30 years ago remains throughout the island today. The occupiers held the island for nearly eighteen months, from Nov. 20, 1969, until June 11, 1971, reclaiming it as Indian land and demanding fairness and respect for Indian peoples.
They were an unlikely mix of Indian college activists, families with children fresh off reservations and urban dwellers disenchanted with what they called the U.S. government's economic, social and political neglect. Since well before Modoc and Hopi leaders were held at Alcatraz in the late 1800s, U.S. policy toward Indians had worsened, despite repeated pleas from American Indian leaders to honor treaties and tribal sovereignty.
The occupation of Alcatraz was about human rights, the occupiers said. It was an effort to restore the dignity of the more than 554 American Indian nations in the United States. Historians and other experts say the occupation-though chaotic and laced with tragedy-improved conditions for the 2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives alive today. "Alcatraz was a big enough symbol that for the first time this century Indians were taken seriously," says Vine Deloria Jr., a University of Colorado-Boulder law professor, philosopher, author and historian. Alcatraz changed everything.
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