Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

Schemes and Dreams

On two or three occasions, while Alcatraz was an active prison, it was suggested that the island be used as a platform for a large statue, perhaps a West Coast version of the Statue of Liberty or a statue of peace. This idea survive the closing of the federal penitentiary in 1963. One San Francisco group, the United Nations Association, was particularly interested in a statue and proposed raising $3 million to erect it. A bill was introduced in Congress, but the United States State Department opposed placing a statue for peace on the site of a prison for the most desperate criminals.

On April 12, 1963, the General Services Administration officially accepted the "Report of Excess Real Property" from the Department of Justice. Other federal agencies were screened to determine if the property was of interest to any of them; the response was negative. A President’s commission was then appointed to decide the future use of the Rock. The commission actually held a meeting on the island on March 24, 1964.

Three days after the commissions meeting five Sioux Indians filed a claim for Alcatraz. The leader of this group, Richard D. McKenzie, had grown up the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota and had settled in Oakland in 1956, where he became a welder. The others in the group were Allen Cottier, then the president of the American Indian Council, Inc., Martin Martinez, Garfield Spotted Elk, and Walter Means, the father of well-known Indian activist, Russell Means. These urban Sioux had earlier "occupied" Alcatraz for three hours on March 8, and the event was noted in the newspapers. Now, the Examiner reported, Bay Area Indians wanted a university for American Indians established on the island. In April the United States Attorney General expressed the opinion that the Indian claims were without legal foundation. A month later Alcatraz was declared to be surplus property.

The General Services Administration assumed custody of, and accountability for, the island in July 1964. It is estimated that its expenses for maintenance and protection would amount to about $2,000 per month. Alcatraz's future continue to be uncertain and, in fact, very little public interest in the island seemed evident. In September 1965, Richard McKenzie again drew attention to the Indians’ claim when he filed the complaint in the U.S. District Court of Northern California asking for an injunction against the sale of Alcatraz that adjudicated their right to it, or, in the alternative, demanding a money judgment of $2.5 million. The suit lingered in court until July 1968, when it was dismissed for lack of prosecution.

Public interest in Alcatraz Island was fanned to a bright flame in 1968 when the city of San Francisco advised General Services Administration of its interest in the island for park and recreational uses. The city mounted a campaign to solicit ideas from the public for the development of Alcatraz. Proposals poured in by the score, ranging from an international Center for the humanities to a gambling casino. Some citizens thought that the prison itself would make a great tourist attraction; others believed that the prison represented "a dark page in American penology,” and should not be commemorated. Few people recognized or even knew about the island earlier historical significance as the site of the first permanent American seacoast fortifications on Pacific. One who did was Colonel Herbert M Hart, United States Marine Corps, any student of early American forts. Parts prepared “The United States Army on Alcatraz a Report to the City of San Francisco” that was instrumental in directing attention to this side of the island’s story.


Little Benny Bufano, seen here in 1966, clowns with his 25-foot head model of St. Francis. His statue was one of many proposals for a shrine on the abandoned island. If this had been accepted, the shrine would have stood 300-feet tall.


On November 20, 1969, a large group of American Indians landed on Alcatraz and claimed it for the Indian Nation.


The massive fires that were started on June 1, 1970 during the Native American Occupation ultimately destroyed several key structures, including the Warden’s mansion and the lighthouse.

At a meeting of the Surplus Property Commission of the city of San Francisco in July 1969, the oil millionaire, Lamar Hunt, presented a proposal for the complete redevelopment of Alcatraz that would erase its historical past. The Commission accepted Hunt’s ideas. Outraged at the idea, a local citizen, Alvin Duskin, took out full-page ads into San Francisco newspapers at his own expense, thus beginning a campaign to "Save Alcatraz." So many people took up Dustin's idea that secretary of the interior Walter Hickel found himself involved in the island's future. In October 1969 General Services Administration agreed to give the Department of the Interior until December 1 to explore the potential of the federal recreation use of Alcatraz Hickel directed the Bureau of outdoor recreation to complete the special study.

Indians of the Bay Area decided it was time to take action. During the night of November 9-10, four Indians jumped from a chartered vessel and attempted to land on the island. The custodian’s dog scare them off. Later that night, these four and ten others returned to the island and successfully landed. The next day the regional administrator of GSA, T. E. Hannon, arrived in Alcatraz and asked the Indians to leave. They readily agreed. But on the way back to San Francisco, Richard Oakes, a dynamic young man and spokesman for the group, agreed to go to Hannon's office to discuss the Indians plans. All remained quiet for the next 10 days.

In a predawn landing on November 20, 1969 the "Indians of all Tribes" returned Alcatraz, this time they were determined to remain. In a press release issued that day they announced five uses the intended for the island: Center for Native American Studies, American Indian Spiritual Center, Indian Center of Ecology, Indian Training School, and American Indian Museum. Then, and later, the newspapers had a difficult time in reporting the actual number Indians on the island, there being constant fluctuations in the population. The generally accepted figure for the occupation group in the first days was 90.

This dramatic occupation of the Rock quickly gained nationwide attention. Reaction, as to be expected, was divided. Among early strong supporters of the Indians was an authority on Indian history, Professor Jack D. Forbes, University of California at Davis. Forbes wrote Hannon stating that the Indians should have use of Alcatraz is a cultural and educational center. He believed that the Indians had a legal right to the island under Mexican law, and Alcatraz "was apparently utilized for food gathering purposes [fishing?] by San Francisco Bay Area Indians.

November 20, 1969

To Whom it May Concern:

We, the members of the Indian Nations and tribes of North America, in an attempt to secure this island; in our attempt at asserting our cultural heritage; in establishing on this island and Institute sponsored to the religious diversity of this Indian Nation; in the creation of a viable program of higher education serviceable to the needs of the Indian people; respectfully solicit your cooperation and expertise.

Indian people are desperately in need of self-assertion for their way of life and their desperate needs, both economic and political. The moved Alcatraz Island symbolizes what American Indians can get with mind power.

We are asking you to give back our honor and we won't need jails; give the Indians a chance to come up and not have to stand behind anymore. We have been in this land for thousands of years.

After 100 years as prisoners of this country, we feel that it is time we were free. We have gone to Alcatraz Island to preserve our dignity and beauty and to assert our position with the new weapons we have come to learn how to use. These weapons are the same ones these invaders of our country used to take what they wanted.

These weapons are the laws and the lawyers, and the power of the pen to tell our real story.

But in addition, we now have a more powerful weapon. The people of this country know a little of the real history and tragedy of the Indian people. What they do not know is the tragic story of the Indian people today.

We intend to tell them that story….

The occupation continued to dominate the news during the rest of 1969. Adam Nordwall, president of the United Bay Area Council of Indians, explained the rationale behind the Indians actions. He said that by attacking Alcatraz, they were attacking the whole system of broken treaties, poverty, and neglect. Alcatraz, to them, and become a symbol. Later the Indians explained that they had taken over Alcatraz because it was a symbol of fear and oppression, the conditions governing the Indians own lives: "The Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island was the attempt of our people to awaken a nation asleep." The Indians organize their own security guards and forming management organization that included the public relations office. Sleeping quarters were spread over the island: in the main cellblocks, the Warden's house, the guards quarters, and elsewhere. A nursery was established, cooking fires were arranged in the recreation yard, and for the first few weeks dances were held nightly. "Radio Free Alcatraz," a daily 15 min. program, began over station KPFA-FM in Berkeley in mid-December.

Just before Christmas 1969, the First Indians of All Tribes National Conference was held on the island, the conference room was the prison dining area. A roundtable "on design and layout" concluded that all of the existing structures on Alcatraz except the lighthouse would be demolished and replaced with a large round house made of steel, Redwood, and glass. Other traditionally shaped buildings would surround the roundhouse in the four directions. Cliff dwellings on cantilevered terraces would be built on the cliffs. All structures, including the lighthouse, were to be decorated in Indian style, including the universal Eagle motif. Other projects recommended at the conference were the establishment of a Marine Observatory, construction of a desalination plant, and the selection of an Indian name for Alcatraz. Richard Oakes, the 27-year-old Mohawk, continued to be the spokesman for approximately 200 Indians on the island at this time.

Meanwhile the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation completed its special study, "A New Look at Alcatraz" and delivered it to Secretary Hickel on November 25. It contained two recommendations: For Alcatraz to become part of the National Park system for Park open-space purposes; and a second study for a national recreation area in the Bay Area as a counterpart to the Gateway proposal in New York Harbor. The second report, "The: Gate - A Matchless Opportunity," was presented to the Secretary of the Interior on December 13, 1969. It was to form the basis of today's Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

In January 1970, tragedy hit the Indians of the Rock. Richard Oakes and his wife were on the mainland with her 12-year-old daughter, Yvonne, fell over a railing on the third floor of an apartment building and fell to the ground for landing on her head. She was taken off the island by a United States Coast Guard boat to a hospital, where she died on January 8th. That same day Richard Oakes announced that he would not returned Alcatraz but would resume his studies at San Francisco State College with his departure; the Indians lost one of the most positive leaders.

T.E. Hannon visited Alcatraz just after Yvonne Oakes had fallen. In his report of his visit he said that he heard rumors of considerable dissension among the Indians than on the island. Later that month U.S. Coast Guard announced that both its foghorn and its lighthouse had been tampered with and vandalize, and any danger to navigation had been created.

That same month Indian organizations in the Bay Area formed the Bay Area Native American Council, which supported the Indians occupying the Rock. The federal government attempted to negotiate with the Council, only to learn that the Council refused to speak with the occupiers. In March the Department of the Interior’s proposal to the Indians listed form a joint planning committee for a cultural center and museum on the island. But the Indians refused to work with the government fearing that such act would quickly bring an end to the Alcatraz movement. At the end of May the General Services Administration announced plans to transfer Alcatraz to the Interior Department for the purpose of making it a park. Four days later fire destroyed some of the more historic structures on the island; including the commandant’s residence, the old Post Exchange, and the lighthouse residences. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the General Services Administration blamed the Indians for the fires. The New York Times on the other hand, said the Indians denied any responsibility for them and laid the blame on whites who had secretly landed on the island.

Just before the fires the water supply (by boat) to Alcatraz had been cut off. The occupiers had relied upon bottled water contributed by mainland friends. In June of 1970, the Indians announced that they would begin to tours of the island for visitors in an effort to raise money for the purchase of water and supplies. Immediately GSA issued a press release saying that Alcatraz was unsafe and dangerous and that any trespassers on the island be prosecuted.

The light on Alcatraz had gone out, also just before the fires. It was commonly assumed that the Indians were responsible. But on June 8 United States Coast Guard acknowledged that it had extinguished the light on May 29 because the Indians were "blowing fuses like crazy." Angered that they have been blamed for something they had not done, the occupiers managed to set up a portable generator and, in an effort to embarrass the federal authorities, relit the light themselves on June 8.

Although the number of Indians living on the island declined in the summer of 1970, and increasing rumors spread that dissension was growing among rival factions, considerable public support for the occupation remained alive. Beniamino Bufano, the San Francisco sculptor, visited Iraq and announced that he would give a 150 foot-high sculpture of an Indian on an eagle to the Indians there. Other visitors ranged from actress Jane Fonda to Mrs. Ethel Kennedy.

GSA officials, preparing for the day when they would regain control of the island, drafted a plan of action for its security; $50,000 was authorized for this purpose. The plan called for the installation of 2,500 feet of 8 foot high chain link fence having three strands of barbed wire on top. There would be 18 light standards for illumination, each bearing a cluster of three Mercury vapor lights. The plan also called for five guard posts manned by GSA guards and two sentry dogs.

The Indians celebrated the first anniversary of their occupation by holding a news conference on the island in November of 1970. At the conference they announced new plans for the establishment of Thunderbird University on Alcatraz. Nonetheless, the enthusiasm and strength of purpose that had marked that first November was now waning.

In January 1971 the Chronicle reported that nine Democratic Congressman, including Philip Burton, had announced their sponsorship of a bill to create a national recreation area in San Francisco Bay. The proposed name was Juan Manuel de Ayala National Recreation Area.

The occupation of Alcatraz Island came to an end on June 11, 1971. On that day 20 federal marshals landed from the Coast Guard cutters to remove the occupiers. They found only six men, four women, and five children on the Rock. The San Francisco Examiner summed up the adventure:

“An aura of sadness hangs over the entire episode for the bravado of its beginnings and it's hollow end. It did, however, evoke a sharper understanding of the plight of those American Indians who have been unable to meet the challenges of modern society with the same success enjoyed by many of their fellow Indians. That much can be said for the plus side.”

But there was more to be said for the plus side. The occupation of Alcatraz was but the first symbolic action taken by Native Americans in recent years to bring home to the American people the status and the plight of both urban and reservation Indians. An immediate plus was the deeding of several hundred acres of federal land near Davis, California, two American Indians and Mexican-Americans to establish an educational institution. While Thunderbird University was not built on the Rock, D-Q University is an established school today.

Shortly after the occupation ended, U.S. Department of the Interior announced that it was concerned about preserving evidence of the Indians one a half years on Alcatraz. Today, much of this evidence continues to remind visitors of the event in the purposes behind it, such things as the symbolic burned-out shell of the wardens residence, and the "Red Eagle" over the main entrance to the prison. National Park Service technicians have identified and recorded the more important graffiti (wall writing) remaining on the walls of the structures, and that which can be preserved, will be.

The fire damage on the island was now supplemented by the bulldozers blade. To make the island inhospitable for any future army of occupation, the federal government had the apartment houses and other residencies around the parade ground reduced to rubble. One of the machines employed was too large to get through the brick sally port of the historic guardhouse - one of the first structures erected on Alcatraz in well over 100 years old. The machine casually knocked out the brick arch severely damaging the portal.

In 1972, 125 years after Lieutenant Warner made the first survey of Alcatraz, the island became part of the new Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Coastal fortifications, Army prison, military garrison, federal penitentiary, and Indian occupation all lay behind. Yet, all of these things remained, too. Their history, in physical and written forms, are forever Alcatraz's heritage.