SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — November marks Native American Heritage Month. 

It was around this time, 53 years ago, that American Indians of different tribes took control of Alcatraz Island and proclaimed it as their own. More than 1.4 million people visit the island in the center of the San Francisco Bay each year.

Alcatraz is best known for the country’s most feared federal penitentiary, where the worst of the worst were locked up. But in 1963 the prison was shut down and served no purpose for years.

In 1969 a group set forth to claim the 22 acres and draw attention to the genocide committed against all Native Americans by establishing a cultural center at the site. Their live-in protest gained national attention.

Dr. Lanada War Jack who led the occupation alongside Richard Oakes, headed back to the island to lead a tour. As the boat approached Alcatraz, traces of their decades-old demonstration came into view.

Red paint at the front entrance reads Indian Land.

“It was exciting, we wanted to do something to help our people and fighting for treaty rights and enforcement of our treaties is the only thing we could do that was positive in the right direction,” said War Jack.

She explained the occupiers were guided by the understanding that federal surplus property reverts back to Native Americans if they claim it. So, for the next year-and-a-half about 400 natives from far and wide used the abandoned prison as a home.

They went by the name Indians of all Tribes. Everyone cooked, cleaned and took care of their kids.

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Meanwhile War Jack, Oakes and their spokesperson John Trudell addressed the media and tried to establish talks with the U.S. government. She said a negotiator would refuse to do so.

She said they were too young and militant, which the group denied given their peaceful approach. But not all American Indians backed their occupation. 

A letter expressing opposition was written to the president by members of the local Ohlone tribe who never received a federally recognized reservation.

It read in part, “Those who are squatting on this rock are mainly from other states…If the United States is ready to deed this land to anyone, we claim that right. We will immediately restore it as a natural wildlife sanctuary and a way station for all people navigating the bay”.

“We can’t help but be who we are and this was the place that we wanted to occupy and it had international press so the media is really important for us we can live or die by the press and we never had any acknowledgement for anything that we fought for and people were dying,” said War Jack.

Although the occupiers were eventually forced out by federal agents in 1971, War Jack credits the protest for other forms of progress for indigenous people. Today, tourists who flock to the rock can learn more about native strife in a temporary exhibit titled ‘Red Power’. 

War Jack wrote to Deb Haaland, the first native U.S. Interior Secretary, requesting a permanent American Indian museum, education and cultural center on the island.

For more information visit Dr. War Jack’s website.