Occupation of Alcatraz, 50th Anniversary Commemoration

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A woman paints the thunderbird on the dock sign during 50th anniversary of the Occupation.

Red Power On Alcatraz: Pespectives 50 Years Later

Virtual Exhibition

On November 20, 1969 a group of Indigenous activists called the Indians of All Tribes arrived on Alcatraz Island. They spoke out against the U.S. Government's Termination Policy and the broader plight of Indigenous people. Red Power on Alcatraz: Perspectives 50 Years Later tells the story of their 19 ­month occupation of the island, a watershed moment in the movement for civil rights. For the 19 months duration of the exhibit, visitors can view photographs by Brooks Townes, Ilka Hartmann and Stephen Shames, original materials collected by Kent Blansett, visual storyboards created by UrbanRezLife, and contributions from the community of former occupiers.

The exhibition invites visitors to investigate the choices – both personal and political – that led to this revolutionary moment in U.S. history. How did the occupiers arrive to the Island? How did the Indian of All Tribes organize to address the rights of inidigenous people on and off reservations? And what can we learn from the 1969 Occupation that can help us address the present-day issues?

Red Power on Aclatraz is the latest special exhibition at Alcatraz Island. Special exhibitions explore the heritage of this land, allowing for fresh perspectives and a deeper exploration of the topics and themes presented in the permanent exhibits, interpretive programs and materials on the Island. In developing Red Power on Aclatraz, the counsel for the Indians of All Tribes collaborated with Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Parks Conservancy.

Meet The Exhibitors

Get to know the exhibitors behind the Red Power on Alcatraz experience and check out the exhibit virtually

URBANREZLIFE is an artist, story teller and writer. She is a enrolled member of the Caddo Nation. She is also Cheyenne Arapaho. Born and raised in San Francisco, California, she was on Alcatraz as a child with her mother, sister's and aunt. She shares some Storyboards about her memories of being a child on Alcatraz. She created these Storyboards thru the eyes of her 8 and 9 year old self. Each Storyboard highlights a childhood memory. To this day UrbanRezLife continues to share the stories of the Occupation of Alcatraz.

ILKA HARTMANN came to the U.S. at 22, and soon fell in love with photography. In 1969, she read that indigenous people claimed Alcatraz for indians and began following the Occupation daily. It took until May 30, 1970 for Ilka to get to the island. With borrowed cameras, she took pictures of the occupiers that day. She would visit one other time before her last trip on June 11, 1971, when the remaining occupiers were removed from the island. Since, Hartmann has photographed communities and movements in the Bay area, and beyond.

STEPHEN SHAMES went to Alcatraz with a friend and fellow photographer Alan Copeland soon after the Indians of All Tribes claimed the island. He became friends with Richard Oakes. And the three of them produced a book, “Alcatraz is Not an Island” with his photos and Richard Oakes’ text. The book was never published perhaps because Richard’s essay seemed too radical for east coast book editors. Shames' photographs featured in the exhibit, were taken in 1969 on Alcatraz plus images from other tribes, pow wows and communities around the west.

BROOKS TOWNES was living on a sailboat in Sausalito when asked by the Occupation’s organizers if he could round up fellow sailors and boats to take 60 people to Alcatraz in the pre-dawn of November 20, 1969. He could and did - 93 people showed up so two of the three boats had to make two sneaky round trips to Alcatraz. Seeing no photographers on the Island, Townes, with Richard Oakes' permission photographed the first 9 days of the Occupation. Townes worked most of his life as a journalist for daily newspapers and magazines, until he retired.

KENT BLANSETT is a Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Shawnee, and Potawatomi descendant from the Blanket, Panther, and Smith families. He is an Associate Professor of History and Native American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Not Your Indians Anymore is a collection of original artifacts, rare media, never before seen photographs, albums, video, art, comic books, and other ephemera that document the history behind the Alcatraz takeover from 1969-1971.

water tower with peace freedom home of the free welcome to indian land on it
Repainted Messaging from the Occupation on the Water tower on Alcatraz, 2019 | KIRKE WRENCH

50th Commemoration

November 20, 2019 marked 50 years to the day, that the Indian of All Tribes arrived and occupied Alcatraz for 19 months. The National Park Service recognizes the Occupation on Alcatraz in regularly offered programs and exhibits on the island. Each year hundreds of teachers and students learn about the occupation while reflecting on society’s changing opinion of civil rights and freedom.

The National Park Service also collaborates with former occupiers and their families to restore the historic messaging and political art from the occupation. The projects build community and offer an opportunity for elders to teach younger generations (and NPS Rangers) about the historic event. As you learn about Alcatraz's history, consider the impacts of the occupation. Have you ever taken a risk to stand up for your beliefs? How far would you go to fight for your community? Why should we remember the Occupation?

On November 20, 21, and 23, 2019, the Indians of All Tribes, their descendants and community came back to Alcatraz to commemorate their revolutionary actions. These three days also served as the official opening of the commemorative exhibit: Red Power on Alcatraz: Perspectives 50 Years Later. Check out moments from the event and tour the exhibition when in the New Industries building:

Alcatraz Island, Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Last updated: January 18, 2024