Alcatraz has long captured the imagination. The story fits many archetypes, the escape proof prison, the worst criminals, an island set apart from civilization.
The Spanish explorers named it for the resident colony of pelicans. As the sleepy town of Yerba Buena grew into the Gold Rush metropolis of San Francisco the federal government took control of the rocky 22 acre island.
1854 – First lighthouse on the west coast
1859 – Army garrison
1861 – Civil War privateers and Confederate sympathizers held on island
1868 – Military prison
1933 – Federal prison
The fog and cold winds would have made garrison duty feel like a prison sentence, isolated 1.5 miles away from the city.
Strong cold currents sweep the bay surrounding “The Rock”. Twenty-six prisoners attempted escape and 5 are classified as “missing presumed drowned”. No one is known to have escaped. Notable inmates included George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Al Capone and Robert Stroud – the “Birdman of Alcatraz.”
Attorney General, Robert Kennedy closed the prison in 1963. Given the relentlessly corrosive salt air and boating in of supplies it cost over three times as much to house a prisoner at Alcatraz vs. another federal prison.
In November of 1969 a group of Native American activists occupied the island raising awareness of their culture and their desire for autonomy. After initial support by the public the island gradually became a destination for the homeless and less fortunate. The social organization was strained and most of the original activists left the island. A fire June 1, 1970 damaged historic lighthouse and other buildings. Public support for the occupation waned. After 19 months the occupation was ended by federal marshals. In 1973 Alcatraz opened to the public, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Some of the numbers in the story below and the introduction do not always match. I tried to use numbers that had the most agreement from reputable sources. The reporter did not have the rich resources we have today to cross check dates.
The then Telegram-Tribune ran a story and photos in the Saturday Focus section on March 7, 1970.
The inside headline paraphrases a tour guide’s commentary
No water, no lights, no heat — it’s just like a reservation
Text and Photographs by Bill Bryan
Early last November, 14 Indian college students “invaded” Alcatraz, the empty federal prison which sits on a small rocky island in San Francisco Bay.
They claimed ownership of the island “by right of discovery,” citing an 1868 treaty allowing Indian Possession of unused federal lands.
They were ousted the following day. But a second force of 89 men, women and children made a nighttime landing on the rocky island on Nov. 20 and have been there ever since, without government interference.
Recently, I visited the Indians along with a Los Angeles promoter who was negotiating distribution of a record dedicated to the Indian cause.
The record, “Desperation ’70,” was written and recorded by Denny Hall, an ex-con who is speaking “for all oppressed peoples” — including prisoners and Indians. Proceeds from record sales are supposed to go to the Indians on Alcatraz.
Transportation to the one-time federal penitentiary — at one time home of “The Birdman of Alcatraz” and Al Capone — consists of a small fishing boat which makes the trip hourly from Fisherman’s Wharf.
The trip out to the island takes about 15 minutes. Any idea of sinister glamor attached to the legendary “Rock” is shattered as you approach, and then finally step ashore.
It is cold, bleak and windy. The cell blocks and tacky administrative buildings, vacated in 1962 when the prison was shut down, appear to be on the verge of collapse, punished by years of bay weather.
It seems a devastating irony that Indians would choose Alcatraz as a symbol of their liberation from years of social and economic “Imprisonment.”
As the Indian guide tells you upon first landing on the island, Alcatraz has all the features of an American reservation — dangerously uninhabitable buildings, no fresh water, inadequate sanitation and the certainty of total unemployment.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead called the seizure of Alcatraz “a magnificent piece of dramatization,” they proudly report to anyone who will come and listen.
There is no fresh water on the rock. While the prison was in use, water was stored in large tanks. The Indians transport water to the island by boat, but it is expensive and no one seems to know how long this system will last.
Most of the Indians live in the buildings which formerly housed prison officials and guards. There are usually between 100 abd 150 Indians on the island. The number changes from day to day with the arrival of newcomers and the exit of those with obligations elsewhere.
Many Indians come out to Alcatraz, stay a few days and then return home to reservations — from Washington to Wisconsin.
There seems to be little for the Indians to don on Alcatraz. Few of them are skilled enought to do any of the renovation work which has been proposed by Indian spokesmen. So, most of the island dwellers pass the time sitting and chatting, walking around the rock, or fishing.
Food is a problem. Charity groups and sympathizers suppled food for the island. Recently, though, the Indians have imposed a limit on the number of visitors allowed — Indians included — because food supplies are barely minimal.
The Indian is now fighting the same sort of social revolution that the Negro won in the 60s. The Indian has realized that he and his culture cannot progress, or perhaps even survive, while he is a ward of the government.
Like the Negro, the Indians say they must carve a niche for themselves in the fabric of American society.
The Indians realize that the reservation system, directed by what they call debilitating paternalism of the Bureau of Indian Affaris (created in 1834 as a division of the War Department and later shifted to the Department of the Interior) must be supplanted by some socio-economic scheme which will liberate the Indian.
Complicating the issue is the Indians avowed disbelief in and distaste for the white man’s world. The older generation of Indians, particularly, are adamant in their determination to keep their traditional culture undiluted.
Young Indians on Alcatraz sound a different note. While maintaining a seemingly fierce loyalty to “the old ways,” they have experienced some desirable aspects of the white man’s society — such as comfortable houses, record players and literature — and at least for now want the best of both red and white worlds.
There has been a great deal of talk about turning Alcatraz into “an Indian cultural center.” I heard bits and pieces of this sort of rhetoric while visiting the island, but saw little evidence that any such enterprise is likely to materialize.
The 150 Indians on Alcatraz appeared to be disorganized, listless and aloof. Perhaps the aloof disorganization will evolve into passionate organization, but it seems unlikely. A few weeks ago, Richad Oakes, a 27-year-old Mohawk, who is one of the Indians’ most forceful leaders, left Alcatraz for good — after his 12-year-old daughter was killed in a fall while playing in one of the old cell blocks.
San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto said “I don’t think the Indians want Alcatraz as such. What they really want are housing, education and jobs.”
He’s probably right, but all they have now is Alcatraz.
And if American society continues to ignore the “invaders” of Alcatraz, leaving them to the cold and rain and fog, the “Rock will end up as a federal prison once again.
This time without water, sanitary facilities or even lights — and the red man who won’t surrender as its prisoner.