American Indians in the prison at Alcatraz during an occupation of the island in 1969. Credit RWK/Associated Press
When the penitentiary on Alcatraz Island closed in the early 1960s, the windswept rock in the San Francisco Bay sat unused for years.
That provided what a group of American Indian activists saw as an opening.
It was this week in 1969 that about 80 Native Americans sailed to Alcatraz, set up camp and demanded that the former prison outpost be deeded back to them by the federal government.
The occupiers, calling themselves Indians of All Tribes, argued that an 1868 treaty gave American Indians the right to claim unused federal land. Alcatraz, they said, would be developed as a cultural and education center.
“We, the Native Americans, reclaim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery,” their proclamation read.
The government refused but took an approach of noninterference.
A rotating group of American Indians stayed in the former prison buildings, without fresh water or phone service, for 19 months before being removed by federal marshals on June 11, 1971.
The takeover generated wide news media attention and awakened many Americans for the first time to the plight of Native Americans.
In the decade that followed, American Indian activists occupied dozens of other locations, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington.
More recently, historians have characterized the protests on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation against the Dakota Access oil pipeline as an echo of that heyday of activism that was ushered in by the occupation of Alcatraz.
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The California Today columnist, Mike McPhate, is a third-generation Californian — born outside Sacramento and raised in San Juan Capistrano. He lives in Davis. Follow him on Twitter.
California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and attended U.C. Berkeley.