"In the name of all Indians ... we reclaim this island for our Indian nations," the proclamation read. "We feel this claim is just and proper, and that the land should rightfully be granted to us for as long as the rivers run and the sun shall shine. We hold the Rock!"
- Richard Oakes, 1969

Black and white aerial photograph of tipi set up on the  grass on Alcatraz. The tipi is centered in the image and institutional buildings, the edge of the island, and water below are visible in the photograph.

Occupation of Alcatraz (November 1969 – June 1971)

Black and white photograph of a tipi set up in the grass on Alcatraz, Golden Gate bridge and San Francisco Bay are visible in the background.

In November of 1969, the nation’s attention would be drawn to a “takeover” of a former U.S. government penitentiary on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, by a group calling themselves the Indians of All Tribes (IOAT). However, this was not the first political action at Alcatraz; in 1964 Russell Means and his father Walter Means and three other men traveled to the island to claim the closed prison site under the terms of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which allowed Indians to claim surplus federal lands and property.

On November 9, 1969, days after a fire destroyed the American Indian Center in San Francisco, an important meeting place for urban Indians offering assistance with employment, health care and legal aid, a brief symbolic occupation of Alcatraz occurred. Richard Oakes, a Mohawk Indian and leader of the one-day event, read a Proclamation to the press and government officials asking that the government build a center on Alcatraz to replace the recently destroyed American Indian Center. The new building would serve as a place to study Native history and ecology, a school for job training and a spiritual center.

Color photograph of a beige building in an urban location, late 1960s. Cars of the era are parked in front of the building. The words ”American Indian Center” are printed on two signs hanging on the building.
Black and white photograph of AIM’s proclamation written on stretched animal skin.

The proclamation included a letter to the “Great White Father and All His People” written in a style calling attention to the hypocrisy of federal government policy in its dealings with Native Americans.

Read the Proclamation and Letter.

On November 20th, after securing a boat to take 89 American Indians and their supporters to the Island, a 19-month long Red Power protest began, led by Richard Oakes.

Black and white photograph of Richard Oakes and AIM members on a boat in San Francisco Bay approaching Alcatraz.
Color photograph of Richard Oakes and other AIM members/supporters surveying food and supplies laid out on tables, outdoors, on Alcatraz.

Acquiring food supplies and financial support for the occupiers became critical. The singing group Creedence Clearwater Revival donated money to purchase a boat to bring food and water to the island. Many Hollywood celebrities issued public statements in support of the takeover and made financial contributions to the group.

“It seemed fitting somehow that this former prison should benefit Indian people, because among the first political prisoners incarcerated there was a group of Hopi fathers who refused to comply with the government’s forced boarding-school practices.”
- Dennis Banks (Ojibwe Warrior 2004:106)

Black and white photograph of AIM members/supporters walking on Alcatraz, viewed through a chain link fence.
Black and white photograph of AIM members/supporters walking on Alcatraz, carrying a large drum.
Black and white photograph of AIM members/supporters preparing fish and other food.
Black and white photograph of AIM members/supporters playing basketball in front of a building with ”Indians Welcome Indian Land” painted above the door/original sign.
Black and white photograph of Native American man wearing traditional ceremonial clothing, Alcatraz in background.

Within months John Trudell began broadcasting daily radio transmissions from Alcatraz, a program he named “Radio Free Alcatraz.” Trudell used the program to discuss Native fishing rights, suppressed cultural traditions and interview a number of individuals participating in the occupation, thereby educating the general public who tuned in to the broadcasts.

Black and white photograph of John Trudell sitting at a desk with multiple microphones for a press conference; also present are three supporters of the occupation. Two White men, dressed in suits, possible news reporters are also present.

Listen to one of Trudell’s broadcasts of Radio Free Alcatraz here:

Color scan of tape case for Radio Alcatraz recording. Blue and black pen notation on cardboard.

Richard Robertson, a representative from the National Council on Indian Opportunity, brought an offer from the federal government to build a park on the island for use by Native people. The offer was rejected and demands for the transfer of the entire island were reasserted.

Black and white photograph of 'You are on Indian Land' painted on a concrete wall at Alcatraz.