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On Nov. 20, 1969, a group of 78 Native American activists who called themselves Indians of All Tribes (IOAT) occupied Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. From that point on, they declared the island Indian Land, and the occupation lasted till June 11, 1971, when the federal government forcibly removed the activists from the island.

Saturday marked the 52nd year since the occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native Americans, and IOAT commemorated the day at the island with prayers, music, dance and shared experiences of the veterans who had occupied the island in 1969.

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U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland visited the island for the anniversary, which came shortly after the Biden-Harris administration’s first White House Tribal Nations Summit on Nov. 15 and 16, which provided an opportunity for the administration and tribal leaders from the 574 federally recognized tribes to discuss ways the federal government can invest in Indigenous communities.

Native American leaders who were part of the occupation such as Eloy Martinez and Dr. LaNada War Jack attended Secretary Haaland’s speech at Alcatraz, along with the current leaders of IOAT.

“In November of 1969, a history began with acts of defiance to take The Rock. That history, in many ways, paved the way for tribal self-determination policies that President Biden and I championed just this week as we gathered with tribal leaders for the first White House tribal nation summit of this administration,” Secretary Haaland said. “Additionally, the president has signed the bipartisan infrastructure law to make historic investments in Indigenous communities. This is billions of dollars that will bolster community resilience, replace agent infrastructure and provide support for climate-related relocation and adaptation.”

Several attendees, including Dr. War Jack, teared up as Haaland spoke about what the occupation meant to Indigenous people. Secretary Haaland said, “The occupation of Alcatraz Island by Indigenous people in 1969 was more than a call for action. It was a cry for a sense of community and the lifeways that were stolen from us. Alcatraz was born out of desperation.”

On the U.S. National Park Service website, Dr. Troy Johnson of Cal State Long Beach explains that there were three occupations of Alcatraz Island in total — two attempts made before the 19-month-long occupation that started on Nov. 20, 1969.

Dr. LaNada War Jack, at left, and Jessica James tear up as U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland speaks at Alcatraz Island on Saturday about the 1969-’71 occupation of the island. (Harika Maddala/Bay City News)

Carried out Richard McKenzie and five Sicangu Lakota, the first occupation on March 9, 1964, lasted only four hours. Despite its short duration, it is of great significance. Their demand to use the island, a once prison, for a cultural center and Indian university was popular throughout the last occupation.

The second occupation took place on Nov. 9, 1969, led by Richard Oakes with Indian students, who would occupy the island for 19 months, just ten days later.

“The anniversary of the occupation is always a special time to preserve and to carry on the legacy of my father as well as to keep the movement alive,” said Richard Oakes, Jr., son of Richard Oakes. “I was only 9 months old when my father passed away. I try to follow the example that he set, everything that he followed and everything that my family has told me about him growing up.”

The sign at the entrance of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary welcomes Indians to the island and declares it “United Indian Property.” (Harika Maddala/Bay City News)

Mignon Geli, a committee member of Alcatraz Indians of All Tribes, shared the group’s plans to document the firsthand account of what happened during the occupation of Alcatraz between 1969 to 1971.

“We’re planning, and we’re trying to get grants and built up the momentum to eventually have a cultural center and museum here on Alcatraz. One of our missions is to get the right history out there in the books,” Geli said.

Among the attendees of the celebration were survivors of Japanese internment camps during World War II. Cinematographer and filmmaker Emiko Omori shared, “I’m a survivor of a concentration camp during World War II. We were on Indian reservation land at that time, so I feel some affinity to the native people here. It’s about time that they got their due, that now, there seems to be more awareness over how this country came to be, by destroying a culture that was thriving here.”

A boat departs from Alcatraz Island in San Francisco on Saturday. (Harika Maddala/Bay City News)