The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1997, Volume 43, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

The Occupation of Alcatraz Island: Indian Self-Determination and the Rise of Indian Activism. By Troy R. Johnson. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996. Photographs. Notes. Chronology. Bibliography. Index. xii + 273 pages. $49.95 cloth, $17.95 paper.

Reviewed by Susan A. Miller, Assistant Professor of History and Native American Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Historian and Native American Studies specialist Troy R. Johnson has produced the first book-length scholarly study of the attempt by a group of Natives from the San Francisco Bay area to gain title to Alcatraz Island. They landed on the island November 20, 1969, proclaiming, “We, the native Americans, re-claim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery” (p. 53; italics in original). Under the name Indians of All Tribes, they occupied the island for nineteen months and nine days until June 11, 1971, when U.S. officers removed them forcibly, if peacefully.

Beyond their sincere plan to take possession of the island and use it for the benefit of the area’s native population, the occupation was a symbolic act to draw public attention to the period’s largely invisible threat to American tribal peoples. In the Bay area, the late U.S. policy of termination and relocation was still visible in a large, recently urbanized native population seeking ways to address dismal health, occupational, housing, and legal conditions.

As social reform movements swept North America, Native Americans embraced a “rhetoric of Indian self-determination” (p. 33) that recognized distinct threats to the tribal peoples and their need for a unique strategy of direct action. Alcatraz Island stood vacant, declared surplus property by the United States government in 1963, after a century of use as an American prison. Discussions among the network of native organizations in the Bay Area came to focus on the possibilities offered by the unoccupied island. After one short-lived occupation in 1964, plans to utilize the island continued to develop in meetings of the United Bay Area Council of American Indian Affairs, Native American Studies programs at the University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco State University, and the San Francisco American Indian Center.

The discussion accelerated after the Center’s building burned on October 28, 1969, leaving the Bay Area Indian community in need of new facilities. Another precipitating factor was an imminent plan by Lamar Hunt to develop the island for commercial use. Underlying causes included the failure of American education to meet the needs of native youth, the participants’ feeling of powerlessness, and their commitment to self-determination.

From the interim quarters of the Indian Center issued the proclamation reclaiming the island for use as an educational center that would 1) provide spiritual training, 2) foster expertise in management of tribal lands and waters, 3) train tribal persons to make a living and address hunger and unemployment, 4) house a museum, and 5) preserve part of the historic prison inmate housing to memorialize the conditions of captivity that native persons suffered at Alcatraz and on reservations.

Twice, on November 9, 1969, and again on November 20, native students of Bay Area occupied the island. The final invasion, lasting more than a year and a half, drew attention and support from around the world. American officials were handicapped in their response by public sentiment against its war in Vietnam and recent massacres at My Lai in Vietnam and Kent State University in Ohio. U.S. officials blockaded the island for a few days and then settled in to outwait the occupiers and manipulate them bureaucratically.

Familiar dynamics may be seen in the account of what followed. Interpersonal relations within and among federal offices influenced the U.S. response. Lawyers maneuvered. The grass-roots support network struggled to adapt to rapid expansion and public scrutiny. Journalists elevated individual students — Richard Oakes, for one — to the status of leaders and thus helped suborn the occupation’s consensus-style government. Partly because of that journalistic license, but also due to the changing composition of the occupying community, the character of leadership and tenor of life there degenerated. Episodes of vandalism on the island were attributed by each side to the other, and public support for the occupation declined.

The historiography of Indian history of the 1950s and 1960s frames the narrative. The author’s interpretation of the Indians of All Tribes’s enterprise relies on interviews with participants, statements issued from the occupied island, and John Trudell’s Radio Free Alcatraz. Documents from the Nixon White House and interviews with White House staff members support a reconstruction the Administration’s activities. To grasp the world-wide response to the occupation, the author balances newspaper accounts and, presumably, collections of letters and telegrams received by U.S. officials with recollections of the occupation’s public-relations staff.

U.S. government documents, memoirs, and the small body of scholarship about the occupation round out the narrative. Noteworthy in particular is the position articulated by representatives of the Ohlone people, who claim customary use of the island and identified the occupiers as trespassers. Silent are the decisive voices of powerful commercial interests, including Lamar Hunt and his confederates in the local government, whose attempt to develop Alcatraz for profit provoked the occupation; or the Bay Area shippers, whose concerns ultimately overrode the Administration’s reluctance to remove the Indians forcibly. This book is a good read and would work well in some American history and Native American studies courses.