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The old Officers' Club was burned out during the Indian occupation of the
July, 2009, Kathy Weiser.
Primarily due to rising
costs, its isolated location, and deteriorating facilities, Alcatraz
was the most expensive of any state or federal institution. At this same
time, prison operating philosophy was changing to reinstitution and
rehabilitation, rather than the wholesale warehousing of inmates. The
government soon began to build a new prison at Marion, Illinois, with
plans to shut down Alcatraz. Though it was said that J. Edgar Hoover was opposed to closing
his power base had eroded over the years and his opinion was ignored.
Attorney General Robert
Kennedy officially closed the doors of Alcatraz on
March 21, 1963, when the final twenty-seven inmates were taken off the
It was the first time
that reporters were ever allowed on the "Rock” to cover its closing which
made headlines across the country. Afterwards, Alcatraz Island was transferred to the General Services Administration
in May of 1963.
During its 29 years of
its operation as a federal prison, the fog enshrouded island confined more
than 1,500 men under intolerable rules and deprivation. Former prisoners
continue to tell tales of the "inside” with numerous scenes that were
seemingly so terrible, that many of the prisoners preferred death to
Just as Warden Johnston
had envisioned it, life was hell for the prisoners on the island, and in
no time it was dubbed "Hellcatraz.” Suicides and murders were common
under the severe and stark rule system of the prison. Infractions of
the rules would quickly land a prisoner in "D” block, known as the
"treatment unit.” Here, men could leave their four-by-eight cells
only once in seven days for a brief, ten-minute shower. Harsher
punishments included solitary confinement, in total darkness, for days
without any release, or confinement in the dreaded steel boxes.
As prisoners looked out
the barred windows of the prison, they saw party barges passing by, cars
traveling on the highways of the mainland, and life going on normally for
those not incased upon the Rock. One prisoner described it this way: "I looked out the window once when I first came to
and saw that and I vowed to never look out the window again for as long as
I was there."
Though one of America’s
most escape proof prisons, Alcatraz
served as an experiment that would never again be repeated. Segregation on this scale had never before been seen and would never again
During the years that the
island was occupied by the prison, eight prisoners were murdered by other
inmates, five committed suicide, 15 died from illness, and numerous others
From 1963 to 1969, the
island remained abandoned, with the exception of a short
American occupation in 1964. Lasting for only four hours, the
symbolic occupation was led by Richard McKenzie, with four other
who demanded the use of the island for a Native American Cultural Center and
Though viewed as insignificant at the time,
these sentiments would later resurface. In the meantime, several other
parties lobbied for various development ideas, ranging from a West Coast
version of the Statue of Liberty, to shopping centers, and resort
again made national news when another group of Native Americans claimed the island as
On November 9, 1969,
Richard Oakes, a Mohawk
and group of supporters set out on a chartered boat to symbolically claim
for the Native Americans. The demands of the occupation were almost
identical to those made in 1964 by the
Sioux who had
claimed the island.
Just a little more than
ten days later, on November 20th, the symbolic occupation turned into a
full scale occupation which would last for the next 19 months.
initial occupation, planned by Richard Oakes, included a group of
students, as well as urban
from the Bay Area. Since so many different tribes were represented by the
Native Americans, the name "Indians
of All Tribes" was adopted for the group.
government initially insisted that the Indians leave the island and placed an ineffective barricade
around it. However, the government eventually agreed to hear
their demands and the group realized that prolonged occupation was
possible. Oakes soon recruited eighty more Indian students from UCLA and the group of occupants reached some
100 Native Americans.
In no time, the
occupants began to organize with Chief Oaks as the unofficial mayor of
electing a council, and providing for security, sanitation,
day-care, school, and housing. Their negotiations demanded the
deed to the island, and establishment of an Indian University, cultural center, and museum.
"We Hold the Rock!"
Indians of All Tribes
The dock at Alcatraz welcomes Native Americans after it was occupied. Photo by Michelle Vignes,
courtesy California State University
There are still signs of the
Native American occupation at
July, 2009, Kathy Weiser.
government negotiators insisted that the occupiers could have none of
these and insisted that the Indians leave the island, the government soon adopted a position
of non-interference. This position was taken largely due to the
strong public support of the Native Americans and their demands. Advocates from show
business celebrities to the Hell’s Angels supported the
Indian occupation and federal officials began to meet with the
Often sitting cross-legged on blankets
inside the old mess-hall, the Indians and officials discussed the social needs of the
While it appeared to the Indian occupants, that their demand might actually be met, the
government was, in fact, playing a waiting game, hoping that public
support would wane and the Indians would voluntarily end the occupation.
At one point,
the government offered a portion of Fort Miley in San
Francisco, as an
alternative site to
Alcatraz. But, by this time, the
Indians were too dedicated to their cause, refusing any
Less than two months after the initial
occupation, the Indian group began to fall into disarray, with two groups rising
in opposition to Richard Oakes. In the meantime, many of the Indian students returned to school in January, 1970. Gradually, the students were replaced by other
Indians who were not involved in the initial occupation.
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