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Captain Jack
Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California



Historic Sites
Selected References


A History of American Indians in California:

Alcatraz Island
San Francisco

Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay was probably seen by Europeans as early as 1769 when Sergeant Jose Francisco Ortega, chief scout from Caspar de Portola's expedition, first viewed the bay. Three years later, the island was definitely identified by Captain Pedro Fages and Father Juan Crespi, who were exploring the area where Berkeley now stands. The island juts out into San Francisco Bay, and appears as a barren, irregularly stratified sandstone rock. When first described by the American Army and surveyors, it was said to be entirely without natural resources and with soil that was barely perceptible, being rocky and precipitous on all sides. Alcatraz Island lies in a northwest-southeast direction, approximately 22 acres, 1,075 feet long and 850 feet maximum width. It has two peaks which reach 138.4 feet and 134.9 feet above sea level. Although it has no real beach, there are two or three places where boats can land. Alcatraz held the Pacific Coast's first lighthouse, served as a military prison for nearly 75 years, played a key role in the harbor defense plan for San Francisco Bay, and housed the nation's most desperate federal criminals from 1934 to 1963.

On April 12, 1963, the Department of Justice declared Alcatraz Island to be excess property, and the President appointed a commission to determine its future use. On March 24, 1964, the commission held a meeting on Alcatraz; three days later, five Sioux Indians — Richard McKenzie, Allen Cottier, Martin Martinez, Garfield Spotted Elk, and Walter Means — filed a claim for Alcatraz. The claim focused on the right of a tribe to claim excess government lands. These same Indians had occupied Alcatraz for three hours on March 8, 1964. The Indians wanted to use the island for a university, which would encompass a center for Native American Studies, an American Indian Spiritual Center, an Indian Center of Ecology, an Indian Training School, and an American Indian Museum.

In April, the U.S. Attorney expressed the opinion that the claims made by the Indians were without foundation; thus, the General Services Administration (GSA) assumed custody and accountability for the island in July 1964. In September 1965, Richard McKenzie filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court of Northern California asking for an injunction against the sale of Alcatraz until a court adjudicated their right to it. As an alternative, they demanded a money judgment of $2,500,000. The court dismissed McKenzie's complaint in July 1968.

During the time the complaint was in court, the City of San Francisco advised GSA of its interest in Alcatraz as a park and recreational site, and in October 1969, GSA agreed to give the Department of the Interior until December 1, 1969 to explore the potential use of Alcatraz as a federal recreational site. Bay Area Indians decided to take action.

During the night of November 9-10, four Indians attempted to jump from a chartered vessel onto the island. Their first attempt was unsuccessful, but later that same night, the original four and ten others returned to Alcatraz and successfully landed. The next day, GSA asked them to leave. Richard Oakes, a young Mohawk man and spokesperson for the group, agreed to go to the GSA office to discuss the Indians' plans. On November 20, 1969, the "Indians of All Tribes" returned to Alcatraz, determined to remain. Approximately 90 Indians constituted the original occupation group. The president of the United Bay Area Council of Indians explained the rationale behind the Indians' actions as an attack on the whole system of broken treaties, poverty, and neglect. Alcatraz became a symbol for Indians because it represented fear and oppression, conditions which governed Indian lives. The occupation of the island was an attempt to awaken a nation asleep to Indian human rights.

During the Indian occupation of the island, Alcatraz was the site for the First Indians of All Tribes National Conference, held before Christmas in 1969. By then, approximately 200 Indians were on the island, with Richard Oakes as their spokesperson. After many months of struggle and unfortunate mishaps, including the death of Oakes's young daughter, who fell over a railing from the third floor of an apartment building, the occupation came to an end. GSA turned Alcatraz over to the Department of the Interior to use as a park, and the U.S. Government deeded several hundred acres of federal land near Davis, California to American Indians and Mexican Americans to establish an educational institution known as Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University.

On June 11, 1971, 20 federal marshals landed on the island to remove the occupiers. They found only six men, four women, and five children remaining from the occupation. Today, the "Red Eagle" over the main entrance to the prison is evidence of the Indians' one and a half years on Alcatraz.

Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island

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Last Modified: Wed, Nov 17 2004 10:00:00 pm PDT

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