The Alcatraz Proclamation: A Primary Document Activity

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On November 20, 1969, Alcatraz island became the unlikely stage for a landmark event in the Native American rights movement.

Framework
During the late 1960s, the public largely ignored the small, isolated, rocky island in San Francisco Bay known as Alcatraz. Home to the notorious federal prison from 1934 until 1963, Alcatraz -- nicknamed "The Rock"-- was still a few years away from being named a National Park and becoming a major tourist attraction in the Bay Area. But on November 20, 1969, the island became the unlikely stage for a landmark event in the Native American rights movement. On that date, 89 Indians -- mostly students from colleges and universities in San Francisco and Los Angeles -- announced they were taking over the island, setting in motion what would become the longest occupation of a federal facility by Native Americans to date.

Objectives

  • Students will understand historical Native American grievances,
  • Students will be able to explain why Native Americans occupied Alcatraz and
  • Students will examine the effect of occupation on Native American pride and activism.

Materials

Suggested Procedures
Ask students to read the documents either as a homework or in-class assignment. Then discuss the documents with them.

  • At whom was the proclamation directed?
  • Why did the "Indians of All Tribes" take Alcatraz island?
  • What were their demands?
  • How would students describe the tone of the proclamation? Is it confrontational? Where is it humorous?
  • The proclamation refers to several historical and contemporary Native American issues that are important in understanding the inspiration behind the occupation of Alcatraz.

Divide the class into five teams and ask each group, as a homework or in-class assignment, to research one of the following topics:

  • The condition of Native American reservations in the 1960s
  • The purchase of Manhattan Island
  • The Trail of Tears and the Massacre at Wounded Knee
  • Native American relations with U.S. government/Bureau of Indian Affairs
  • Native American activism in the 1970s

Students should then present their findings to the class. Based on the information presented by the teams, discuss with students how these issues affected the Alcatraz occupation and vice versa. Discussion questions might include:

  • Were conditions of the Native American reservations described accurately in the Alcatraz Proclamation?
  • Compared to the purchase of Manhattan Island, was the price the occupiers offered for Alcatraz fair? Why or why not?
  • Why would they want the Trail of Tears and the Massacre at Wounded Knee to be included in their museum? What messages would these inclusions offer?
  • What was the occupiers' attitude toward the Bureau of Indian Affairs? What evidence is there of this in the proclamation?

After the presentations, discuss with the students the impact of the Alcatraz occupation. Did the Native Americans accomplish their goals according to the declaration? What effect did the occupation have on Native American pride? Was the occupation a "success"? Make sure students support their conclusions with information they learned from the presentations.