By Jeff Provine
A new chapter in the turbulent history of Alcatraz Island began in 1963 with the announced closure of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Situated at the eastern end of the Golden Gate strait that connects San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean, the island had already experienced numerous occupations. It first duties included hosting a lighthouse as a private island; it then came into public service in the 1850s as naval fortifications. The jailhouse at Fort Alcatraz grew in size and notoriety, holding through the years Confederate secret agents, civilian prisoners following the Earthquake of 1906, and Native Americans from the Hopi tribe who refused to follow the boarding school system promoting assimilation. Eventually the entire island would be proclaimed a federal penitentiary, the most notorious prison in the nation for the most notorious prisoners including George "Machine Gun Kelly" Barnes and gangster Al "Scarface" Capone. Surrounded by fast, chilling currents, the prison was supposed to be escape-proof, although 1962 showed that it could be done when several inmates escaped in a homemade raft. The next year, officials determined to close the prison since it had lost its legendary status and was exceedingly expensive to operate. News reports noted that the plan was to gift the island from the federal government to the City of San Francisco.
As Belva Cottier read the news, however, she had a different thought. A member of the Rosebud Sioux, she recalled the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868, where it was agreed between the tribe and the federal government that surplus federal property could be claimed by the tribe for use in education, health care, or housing. In the process of divesting federal property, it must be declared "excess" by the General Services Administration and then "surplus" if no agencies can use it, which would then free it up to be sold or, in this case, gifted to the city. On March 8, 1964, Cottier and several others arrived on the island in a demonstration, suggesting the government should take their offer of $9.40 for the island, the same 47-cent-per-acre price given for Sioux lands years before. News coverage bolstered the Native American identity movement, but ultimately the group left after threats of arrest for the felony of trespassing.
For five years later, the island remained more or less empty as the wheels of government slowly turned. In 1969, after a fire destroyed the San Francisco Indian Center, the idea of taking control of Alcatraz returned. That October, five boats loaded with activists sailed for the island. Before any could arrive, Richard Oakes, a member of the Mohawk tribe, and four other students swam ahead of them. They climbed to shore and announced a claim by right of discovery since the island had sat vacant for so long. The "right of discovery" also served as a protest in legal argument since the early European explorers used the same right to claim land inhabited for countless generations by native peoples. Again well publicized, the occupation in October was temporary. It would not be until November 20 that 89 people arrived intending a permanent residence.
Oakes and other leaders set up rules for the community, establishing a council while all major decisions had to be made unanimously among all the residents. Everyone, including children, was assigned a task to contribute to the new colony ranging from cooking and child care to sanitation and repair work. John Trudell, a Sioux broadcaster, established "Radio Free Alcatraz" and began reporting on the need for supplies on the island, especially clean water. At Thanksgiving, hundreds of people traveled to the island to celebrate a great feast. Afterward, however, winter set in, and the colonists struggled to go on. Supplies had to be sneaked ashore, often in small canoes, as the Coast Guard struggled to keep what they perceived as order in a situation where the government's hands were tied while the Longshoreman's Union watched, promising to close traffic in the ports if the natives were removed.
While the colony struggled, leaders continued to send public messages to the federal government, clearly citing violated treaties and other legal arguments. American citizens' interest began to wane as the weeks turned to months.
On January 3, 1970, Yvonne Oakes, 13-year-old daughter of Annie and stepdaughter to Richard Oakes, fell to her death down the steps on the Island. Oakes and his wife decided to leave the protest, which was already running out of control with a lack of supplies and homeless drug-addicts seeking shelter among the protestors. After a fire in June, 1970, that ravaged the island, the remaining 15 people (Means among them) were escorted off by the Coast Guard. The United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians case came to the Supreme Court in 1980, which found in favor of the Sioux and awarded damages from the gold prospectors with interest at $88 million (compounded to today at well over $1 billion). The nation has refused the money, instead calling for a return of the Black Hills themselves.
But what if Oakes survived the fall? The humanitarian story of Oakes's thirteen-year-old stepdaughter falling from the steps and being rescued despite her injuries would actually bring back public attention. Rather than bringing her back to San Francisco, lets assume the people treated her on the island, in that case, footage of her recovery would make for passionate reports. The scenario below outlines what could happen next.
The need for public support was clear, and Shoshone-Bannock LaNada Means led a campaign to find a high-profile lawyer to keep the case in the national conversation. Trudell disagreed, wanting to keep control of their message, but Oakes managed to keep leaders cooperating in the face of government refusal of every offer the group provided. Oakes's organization managed the affairs of the island, keeping water flowing and the lights on as well as banishing troublemakers back to the mainland.
As midterm elections came in 1970, the "Indian issue" became one of the major discussion points. When it became clear that conservatives were losing ground because of it, Republican party leaders pushed Nixon to do something. Rather than risk an all-out war by seizing the island, Nixon had already called for an end of tribal termination policies and struggled to find a solution within his bureaucracy since giving in to protestors might make him look weak. Instead, he stalled on further proposals and leaned on the courts to bring the matter to an end. Going back to the Treaty of Fort Laramie, the Sioux tribe had already petitioned the Indian Claims Commission for violations, a petition that was rejected and then ordered reevaluated in 1958 during an appeal to US Claims Court. It had gone nowhere in over a decade, focusing on the legal right of the court to award damages. Instead, the Justice Department brokered a settlement to award damages as an executive action along with outlining the process for marking Alcatraz as All Indian tribal land.
Conservatives were satisfied that natives would have to "abide by the rules" for the land, while natives celebrated that the rules were finally being followed. Grant money soon flowed to Alcatraz, which became a new cultural center, a facility for ending drug addiction, and the anchor of Oakes's dream of a "mobile university" with classes held all over the nation. Other occupations followed suit for protest, although they rarely carried the attention that Alcatraz had won or saw negative outcomes like the Second Battle of Wounded Knee in 1973. Instead, organizers focused on the bureaucratic and legal angles, campaigning for surplus definitions and scooping up federal property. Many shuttered government facilities have gone on to be artist and spiritual colonies and satellites for the University of Alcatraz. With the implementation of online learning with the internet in the 1990s, enrollment at the experimental university expanded by thousands, which put it at the forefront of American higher education by the mid-2000s.