Alcatraz – Native American Presence and Occupation

Alcatraz Island is located 1.5 miles from the shores of San Francisco, California in the San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz offers tourists a chance to see the first lighthouse and the first fort built on the west coast of the United States, the infamous state penitentiary, and remnants of the 19-month occupation of the island by Native Americans.  Since the prison’s closure in 1963, Alcatraz has also become a sanctuary for seabirds such as cormorants and pigeon guillemots, and for water birds such as snowy egrets and black-crowned night herons (National Park Service, 2010). Although Alcatraz Island is geographically small, it has been affected by numerous significant historical events.  This landmark has enormous potential as one of California’s premier heritage sites.


In 1933 Alcatraz was acquired by the Department of Justice and in 1934 it was transformed into a maximum-security United States Penitentiary Federal Prison.  This maximum-security prison was to be the toughest, most strictly run prison in the United States.  Wardens from the Bureau of Prisons were polled and asked to select their most incorrigible inmates for shipment to Alcatraz.  This heritage is evident in the structures on the island.  For the next twenty-nine years, Alcatraz would house the nation’s most infamous and deadly criminals and gangsters, including Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Doc Barker. On November 20, 1969, Alcatraz Island became the focal point of the fight for justice and self-determination for Native Americans of all tribes when 79 Native Americans arrived on Alcatraz to begin what would be a 19-month occupation of the island.

Management Plan

The primary aims of this management plan are to:

  • Identify and preserve Native American heritage on Alcatraz Island
  • Educate tourists about the island’s significance as a Native American heritage site
  • Signal to the Native American community that their heritage is valued by their government and the American people

Management Objectives

Objective #1: Reevaluate and manage the island taking into consideration its significance as a Native American heritage site.

Objective #2: Call attention to and preserve the remaining tangible Native American heritage on the island.

Objective #3: Educate visitors to the island about the Native American heritage on the island through storytelling, reenactments, and island activities.

Objective #4: Develop a Native American community center on the island.

Objective #5: Build a Native American museum on the island.

Objective #6: Excavate the island for remnants of pre-contact Native American artifacts without disturbing the environment.

Objective #7: Increase the island’s availability to the public.

To read the complete Site Management Plan, click the following: Alcatraz Island Site Management Plan 2011


In 1994 the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA published a special edition of the American Indian Culture and Research Journal to commemorate the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island. PDF versions of every article that appeared in this edition are available for download here:


Jesse Ramsey Howalt

Jesse is a third year Political Economy major at University of California, Berkeley. He has absolutely no idea what he plans to do after graduating.

Ian Wilson

Ian is a British-Australian anthropology major at UC Berkeley in his junior year, who transferred last fall as a “mature” student from City College of San Francisco. He has greatly enjoyed this course, and would like to extend his thanks to the course’s instructors: Ruth “The Truth” Tringham, and Meg “Doc” Conkey. Ian is particularly fond of wombats.

Julia Frers-Karno

Julia Frers-Karno recently ended her Junior year at UC Berkeley. She plans to graduate in 2012 from UC Berkeley with a BA in Anthropology. Although she prefers to focus her studies on Cultural Anthropology, she has found an interest in Archaeology and has participated in Archaeological digs in Belize and Guatemala. After she graduates, she plans to study and possibly conduct fieldwork in Latin America.

Nina Diatchenko

Nina has just finished her BA in Anthropology at University of California, Berkeley. Currently she aspires to write a novel, teach English in Japan, and/or see the future (and make sure she’s making the right decisions). She has learned a lot from this project and hopes others will learn something, too.

Tatyana Kovaleva

Tanya is a senior at University of California at Berkeley, majoring in Media Studies. She enjoys traveling abroad, as well as within the United States. She aspires to learn more languages fluently, and expand her knowledge of English, Russian and French literature. Tanya is the biggest cat-lover on this planet.


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