Remembering the native occupation

Few people in busy San Francisco, United States, would realise that it’s rapidly approaching the 50th anniversary of an event that gained the city international headlines – the occupation of Alcatraz.

On a foggy November morning in 1969, boats carrying 89 native American Indians headed across San Francisco Bay on a five mile journey from Sausalito. On arrival at Alcatraz Island – the ‘Rock’ that once housed one of the world’s most famous prisons – the occupants of the boats claimed the site as Indian land for a Native American cultural centre and university.

And thus began a bizarre chapter of the late 1960’s – a 19-month occupation that helped the plight of American Indians develop into a national issue.

As you approach Alcatraz today, signs of the occupation are obvious.

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When we visited the Rock, our boat landed almost directly below graffiti reading “Indians Welcome”.

And, as we wandered among the buildings on the famous island and explored the empty cell blocks, there were many other signs of the occupation.

As Alcatraz guides tell the story, Native Americans from the San Francisco Bay turned their eyes to the windswept Rock soon after the prison closed on the harbour island in 1963.

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Word has it that the Native Americans offered to buy the island for $24 in glass beads and red cloth, which is said to be the price that Indians received for Manhattan.

Wary of a public backlash, the U.S. government of the time decided to leave the occupiers alone – and the movement gradually withered. After a fire destroyed some buildings, electricity to the island was cut and federal marshals finally removed the remaining six men, five women and four children in June 1971.

Two years later, Alcatraz became a national park and the island in the bay now attracts more than one-million visitors a year. It is a fascinating place to explore and boasts some intriguing stories, some of which were immortalised in movies such as ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ and ‘The Birman of Alcatraz’.

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From a Native American point of view, the occupation of the Rock put the island front and centre in in social campaigns. Apparently, nationwide walks to protest against the plight of American Indians have started at the island. And, since 1975, people have met at Alcatraz every November for an “Un-Thanksgiving Day” celebrating Indian culture and activism.

Visiting Alcatraz Island is one of the most rewarding experiences of any stop in San Francisco. The actual anniversary of the American Indian occupation is November 20.

The island is operated by the National Parks Service. See information about tours.

As a prison, Alcatraz housed well-known criminals, such as Al Capone, George “Machine-Gun” Kelly and Alvin Karpis (said to be America’s first ‘Public Enemy No 1)

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