The Native American College Students and Alcatraz

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On November 9th, 1969, a group of nearly one hundred Native American college students stood on the coast of San Francisco Bay, ready to take over the former federal prison known as Alcatraz, but the boats, their transportation to the island, never came. Refusing to accept defeat, protest leader Fortune Eagle convinced a Canadian sailboat skipper, Ronald Craig, to take them on a cruise, not to the island, but around it. Halfway through the journey, Richard Oakes and some of the other American Indians dove overboard in an attempt to swim to the island. Trapped in the freezing waters by the tide, the group was forced to be rescued by the United States’ Coast Guard. Despite this failure, the students, encouraged by the American Indian Movement (AIM), continued their efforts and successfully occupied the island just eleven days later (Winton). Both the creation of AIM and the occupation of Alcatraz were motivated by the federal government’s treatment of Native Americans and impacted Native American civil rights movement. Since the European discovery of America in 1492, incoming settlers have often struggled to cooperate with the native inhabitants; originally, American Indians were often viewed as uncivilized savages, partly because of their difference in skin color and religion. However, for the most part, American Indians were very trusting of Europeans and allowed settlers to use their land for housing and agricultural purposes. As immigration increased during the 1700s, the settlers took more territory from the Native Americans, causing clashes over control of the land. After the Revolutionary War, the newly formed United States, both physically and economically depressed, made significant attempts to placate the Native Americans... ... middle of paper ... ...ement, they sparked a series of events that would eventually lead to historic and progressive policy change at the federal level (Gilio-Whitaker). Vine Deloria Jr., a University of Colorado-Boulder law professor, philosopher, author, and historian, stated, “‘Alcatraz was a big enough symbol that for the first time...Indians were taken seriously’” (Winton). Even though America’s history with Native Americans dates back more than five hundred years, the formation of the American Indian Movement and the occupation of Alcatraz mark significant turning points in the Native American civil rights movement and improved conditions for the two million American Indians alive today (Winton). Every November since 1975, Native Americans gather at Alcatraz on Thanksgiving to hold an “Un-Thanksgiving” to honor the occupation and those who still fight for rights today (“Alcatraz”).

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