Skip Navigation

The Brown Political Review is a non-partisan political publication that seeks to promote ideological diversity. All of the views reflected in BPR’s content are views held by authors and not reflective of the views held by the wider organization or the Executive Board.

Island of Imprisonment, Island of Freedom

Positionality statement from the author: As an American at a privileged institution, I am aware of my responsibility to be an educated and informed citizen of the histories and cultures of the diverse array of peoples in this country, including indigenous communities. In my path to satisfying my desire to align my thinking with indigenous world views, I recognize that I am not a member of any First Nations community and do not face the same difficulties that native peoples endure. I do not try to imply that I will ever fully understand what it is like to be an oppressed minority in the way that indigenous communities do, but rather wish to fulfill my duty as a student with fortunate resources to expand, optimize, and diversify my education at Brown.

Alcatraz Island is most famous as a former maximum security federal penitentiary, drawing tourists to visit the now abandoned site of internment for some of America’s most famous criminals. However the island has another, largely overlooked legacy as the birthplace of America’s modern indigenous rights movement.

November 20, 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the Occupation of Alcatraz, a political movement with the unifying goal of bringing national awareness to the plight of Native Americans and speaking out against the US government’s 1953 Termination Policy. The policy disbanded American Indian tribes across the US, relocating them to urban areas and selling their lands. Native Americans who moved off reservations not only lost valuable ties to their culture and land, but also faced a lack of job opportunities, education, and social services.

In the course of the demonstration, a group of over 400 indigenous activists identifying themselves as the Indians of All Tribes (IOAT) occupied Alcatraz Island in protest. The occupation lasted for 19 months despite the limited access to electricity and running phone lines on the island. The activists grounded their legal claims in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, arguing that, as Alcatraz had recently been shut down and designated as “surplus” federal land,  the treaty opened it—and all unused, retired, or abandoned federal lands—to legal claims by Native Americans. Unfortunately, the activists’ claim to the island was ultimately denied, and the occupation ended on June 11th of  1971.

Despite its apparent failure, the occupation is considered uniquely successful because for the first time, it formally unified a historically divided, scattered people, making alliances both between tribes and with non-indigenous allies. Prior to their contact with European colonists, Native Americans felt strong attachments to their individual tribes; they were not “Native American” but rather Lakota, Navajo, Iroquois or Cree. Tribes typically saw themselves as distinct entities, and often came into conflict over scarce resources. Such tribal conflicts only worsened with the escalation of colonialism in the Americas, as in American Indian Wars which saw tribes pitted against each other as they sided with different factions of European settlers. In one example, during the Pequot War, English colonists allied with Narragansett and Mohegan tribes against the Pequot.

This history of conflict and disunity gave the 1969 movement in Alcatraz special significance as the beginning of a new blueprint for Native American unity and activism. Native American communities across the country came together regardless of tribal affiliation in a collective mission to reclaim the island. They may not have won the battle over Alcatraz, but they won something greater in the foundation of the IOAT. The movement set a precedent for a shared Native American identity.

Today, indigenous unification is still integral the political and social struggles of indigenous people in the US and worldwide. Collective effort is what helped to protect native sovereignty and fight termination laws like the 1953 policy that inspired the Alcatraz occupation in part. The Occupation is still widely seen as one of the roots of the growing global Indigenous Peoples’ movement, the same movement that fought for the ratification of the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

This cooperation between different native communities has a lasting impact that can be traced to modern movements.  For example, the 2016 Stand with Standing Rock protests united members of more than 300 federally recognized Native American tribes in protesting the controversial construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The $3.7 billion dollar project, which proposed to transport crude oil over 1,172 miles yards away from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, threatened to contaminate the population’s water supply as well as desecrate native burial grounds. The Tribal Historic Preservation Officer at the Standing Rock Reservation affirmed that this effort was the first time since 1876 that leaders from across the seven major tribes of the Sioux Nation had come together. Flags of dozens of tribes lined the main entrances to the major basecamps of protest; at the Seven Council camp alone, there were more than five dozen tribes represented.

Present day unification efforts stand to show that the model established at Alcatraz by the “Indians of All Tribes” remains effective. Although half a century has passed since the Occupation of Alcatraz, the demonstration of unified tribes birthed a lasting framework for indigenous activism. The collective infrastructure established legitimacy and organization within the native polity, leaving a timeless legacy of hope for the future of indigenous activism.