Alcatraz Island is located 188 miles from my home in northern California. As a child, I visited the site a few times on school field trips, and have since been twice as an adult. Each time I was there I had a positive experience learning about the history of the island as a prison. What I never learned was the historical context of Native Americans and the island. In fact, when I Googled Alcatraz recently, the top five auto-responses were prison, island, escape, ghost, and tours. As with my education regarding the island, Native Americans are not present.
The predominant, or white, history of Alcatraz was that in 1775 a Spanish explorer, Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala, discovered the island. Once gold was discovered in California, in 1848, the population in the San Francisco Bay Area grew rapidly, creating a military need. During this time the United States claimed the land from what was then, independent Mexico. The military used the island as a base until it was converted into a prison in 1934. The prison was closed for financial reasons and abandoned in 1963, thus becoming surplus federal land.
The expanded history is that in 1964 Allen Cottier took forty Native Americans to the island. Upon arrival, the group released a statement of request to buy Alcatraz for forty-seven cents per acre, roughly $10, and the same price California offered per acre of land to Native Americans over the last century. Unfortunately, the group was not prepared to be on the island long-term and left shortly after arriving, without reaching their goal. On November 20, 1969, Ed Castillo, a member of the Juaneno tribe and a professor of Native American Studies at UCLA, led a small group of Native Americans to the island, by boat, at night. Within twenty-four hours the group had grown to seventy-eight, and in the course of the nineteen-month annexation, upwards of 200 Native Americans visited the island in protest. They were “young people whom the education system neglected, and increasingly, they desired for themselves the same opportunities others had.” The annexation of Alcatraz in 1969 was the “birthplace of the American Indian Red Power movement.”
While on Alcatraz, the group, Indians of All Tribes (IAT), authored a press release outlining their concerns about the treatment of Native Americans by the United States. The statement read: “we have no government for our own people and we live under what is really a colonial system because we do not select the people who govern us.” Native Americans were watching Civil Rights Movements emerge all around them and they wanted to use this time to gain a larger voice in the struggle. Alcatraz was a pivotal moment in which people from many tribes and from all over the country came together in the fight for cultural, economic, and social equality. They didn’t want to “melt with the melting pot” in the current college system, essentially being whitewashed when they graduated.
In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, novelist Sherman Alexie narrates the story of a young boy determined to change his circumstances and create a better life for himself. It is his understanding that if he stays on the reservation on which he has been raised, he will perpetuate the cycle of poverty. He ultimately desires a white education, exactly what the occupiers of Alcatraz were fighting against. They didn’t want “to go through the university machinery, coming out white-oriented.” However, the protagonist in this story sees no other way out. The release of this book was roughly thirty-five years after the annexation of Alcatraz, and highlights the struggle that still exists today.
The Red Power Movement was a very important historical movement. Native Americans “needed attention brought to [their] people, and [they] needed a place to get together in the city so that [they] didn’t become victims of assimilation.” But what was the outcome of this important movement? From all appearances, not much has changed since the 60s regarding relations between the United States and Native Americans. This is depicted well in Alexie’s book. The relationship is still strained and Native Americans continue to be disenfranchised today, despite all their efforts. The question then becomes, how can we ensure our children are taught the real history of Alcatraz, in an effort to bring light to the continued oppression of Native Americans?
 Alcatraz Island, National Park Service, Last Modified April 2, 2015, http://www.nps.gov/alca/learn/historyculture/the-post-on-alcatraces.htm
 Alcatraz Island, National Park Service, Last Modified April 2, 2015, http://www.nps.gov/alca/learn/historyculture/us-penitentiary-alcatraz.htm
 “Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee”, Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior (The New Press, 1996), 10.
 Smith & Warrior, “Like a Hurricane”, 2.
 Smith & Warrior, “Like a Hurricane”, 5.
 Smith & Warrior, “Like a Hurricane”, 3.
Alcatraz Island, National Park Service, Last Modified April 2, 2015, http://www.nps.gov/alca/learn/historyculture/index.htm
 “Planning Grant Proposal to Develop an All-Indian University and Cultural Complex on Indian Land, Alcatraz,” in Great Documents in American Indian History, edited by Wayne Moquin and Charles van Doren (Da Capo, 1995), 378.
 Moquin & Van Doren, “Planning Grant Proposal”, 377.