Alcatraz Is Not An Island

Alcatraz Is Not An Island

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After centuries of the United States Government ignoring and mistreating the Indigenous people of this land, the Alcatraz occupation in 1969 led by righteous college students, became the longest Indian occupation of federal ground in the history of the United States and a landmark for Indian self-determination. The documentary, Alcatraz is Not an Island, describes the occupation that made Alcatraz a symbol for Indigenous people as motivation to stand up against the cruelty that they have experienced since the arrival of the Europeans. Hence the name of the film, Alcatraz can be seen as an inspiration for Indigenous people rather than an island.
The first attempt to occupy Alcatraz took place in 1964 when a group of four Native Americans landed on the island and claimed it for four hours before the coast guard removed them. This became the inspiration for a group of San Francisco State students to attempt an occupation of their own in 1969. When attempting to make it to the island, only one boat agreed to assist the Native American's in their occupation. They were not able to dock on the island, but, Richard Oaks became the leader of the group when he jumped off the boat and swam to the island. After this brief occupation Richard Oaks returned to San Francisco and began to recruit people to join the movement. Oaks went to UCLA where eighty students agreed to join the movement. On November 20, 1969 a group of one-hundred Native Americans set sail from Sausalito and landed on Alcatraz Island, beginning the occupation that would last for nineteen more months.
The goal of the occupiers was for the United States Government to allow the Indigenous people to create a culture center, museum, and a Native American University on the island. The United States government repeatedly refused to negotiate, however the inspired occupiers refused to back down. The film showed how the Indians worked together to demand justice from the government. Over the nineteen month span hundreds of Native Americans as well as some non-native citizens lived on the island. The occupation ran into leadership issues when Richard Oaks stepped down as the leader due to the death of his daughter, which took place on the island. Just before the occupation ended, the United States government turned off the electricity and water supply to the island.

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Three days later several historic buildings on the island burned down causing the occupiers to be blamed for the damages. Problems continued to occur and support for the occupation began to diminish after this incident. On June 11, 1971 the occupation ended when the coast guard removed the small group of Native Americans that remained on the island.
The occupation may be seen as a failure due to the tragic ending, however, it was a huge success in that it raised the spirits of Native Americans across the nation and made a point to the United States government that the indigenous people deserve better treatment. The political movement that began with a small groups of college students eager to take over Alcatraz still exists today. Native Americans express themselves through poetry and speak out about injustice through music as I saw during the culture day in the Memorial Union.
Growing up in San Francisco, I have toured Alcatraz on three different occasions. I remember seeing the sign on the very front of Alcatraz island that reads, "Indian Land". The tour guides may have briefly mentioned why it was painted to the Island, but they never expressed the importance of the occupation. Rather, the main things that always stick out about visiting the island are the stories of the prisoners that attempted to escape and the "Birdman" that lived on the island. It is very disappointing to me that the occupation isn't more widely spoken of to the visitors of Alcatraz island, as it is a very important event in Native American history. The Alcatraz occupation is a significant part of Native American Studies because it is a symbol for the current activism. Additionally, it shows that Native Americans are still around today and still are not being treated the way they should be.
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