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Alcatraz (United Indians of All Tribes) 1969-71

Last modified: 2020-12-26 by rick wyatt
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[Alcatraz (United Indians of All Tribes) 1969-71] image by Olivier Touzeau, 29 October 2020

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The Flag

Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Bay, is a small island of 8.9 ha (22 acres) which was developed with facilities for a lighthouse, a military fortification, a military prison, and a federal prison from 1934 until 21 March 1963.

Alcatraz island was occupied by Native American activists for the first time on March 8, 1964. The protest, proposed by Sioux activist Belva Cottier and joined by about 35 others, lasted four hours.

Beginning on November 20, 1969, a group of Native Americans called United Indians of All Tribes, mostly college students from San Francisco, occupied again the island to protest federal policies related to American Indians. They were led at the beginning by Richard Oakes. Some of them were children of Native Americans who had relocated in the city as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' (BIA) Indian termination policy, which aimed at the assimilation of Native Americans into mainstream American society, particularly by encouraging Native Americans to move away from the Indian reservations and into cities. A number of employees of the Bureau of Indian Affairs also occupied Alcatraz at that time, including Doris Purdy, an amateur photographer, who later produced footage of her stay on the island. Oakest left the island in January of 1970, after his youngest daughter accidentally fell to her death.

The American Indians claimed the island by provisions of the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) between the US and the Sioux; they said the treaty promised to return all retired, abandoned, or out-of-use federal lands to the native peoples from whom they were acquired. Indians of All Tribes then claimed Alcatraz Island by the "Right of Discovery", as indigenous peoples knew it thousands of years before any Europeans had come to North America. Begun by urban Indians of San Francisco, the occupation attracted other Native Americans from across the country, including American Indian Movement (AIM) urban activists from Minneapolis.

The original one hundred or so occupiers soon left, to be replaced by other Indians from across the country. The occupiers, who stayed on the island for nearly two years, demanded the island's facilities be adapted and new structures built for an Indian education center, ecology center and cultural center. The federal government prepared to reoccupy the island, but public opinion prevented the use of force. Although the demands with regard to Alcatraz were denied, the occupation focused the nation’s attention on the American Indian Movement and its goals. During the period the occupiers were on Alcatraz Island, President Nixon returned Blue Lake and 48,000 acres of land to the Taos Indians. Occupied lands near Davis, California became home to a Native American university. And the occupation of Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in Washington, D.C. led to the hiring of Native Americans to work in the federal agency.

The government finally arrested fifteen holdouts in June of 1971, ending the occupation. The occupation gave birth to a political movement which continues to today. The symbol of Alcatraz also continues to this day, and the island in San Francisco Bay is the starting point for the 30th Anniversary Longest Walk, sponsored by the American Indian Movement, crossing the nation to Washington, D.C., to promote harmony with the Earth. In 1972, Alcatraz became part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area and received designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1986.

The actual flag that flew from the guard tower over Alcatraz during its occupation is pictured in an article on the occupation in the San Francisco Chronicle of January 8th, 1970, with the caption “An Indian Flag Flew from an Alcatraz Guard Tower. A brave symbol, but below it the occupiers’ unity crumbled.” This unique flag, was produced as a prototype and created by Lulie V. Nall, a Penobscot Indian and a longtime activist, not only within Native American movements, but in the quest for peace and harmony.

"The flag became the axis of her efforts, and she made many attempts to publicize it. She christened it Old Glory’s Helper Flag, since Old Glory was in need of assistance. In her words, “Red, represents the American Indian who shares his tepee with fifty state governments. Yellow, Black and Brown people are represented in the fields they help toil and join. White, not only represents the white man and his dexterity by planning our great land but the lightness of all hearts when complexion is disregarded in a utopia USA…” She created a game employing the flag as a board, with cards using the flag design, and also designed stationery and cards using the flag."

Olivier Touzeau, 29 October 2013