Alcatraz Island is located in the San Francisco Bay, only 1.5 miles from the shore of San Francisco, California. It now contains structural remnants of a prison in disuse, early military fortifications, and the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States. While the island is thought to have been first inhabited by the Ohlone Native American tribe, the earliest recorded discovery of the island was by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775. Juan Manuel de Ayala christened the island “La Isla de los Alcatraces”, or the Island of the Pelicans, due to the island’s large population of seabirds.
In 1850, U.S. President Millard Fillmore claimed the island for military use, leading to the eventual construction of a fortress. In 1861, when the American Civil War started, the island was mounted with 85 cannons in casemates in order to protect the San Francisco Bay from potential attacks. Although the guns on Alcatraz were never fired for offensive reasons, Confederate sympathizers and privateers during the Civil War were imprisoned on the island during wartime.
In October 1933, the Bureau of Prisons was given the responsibility of turning Alcatraz from a military prison to a high security federal prison, marking the beginning 5 of the era for which Alcatraz is most well known. In 1934, Alcatraz opened and became America’s first maximum-security, minimum-privilege federal penitentiary. Alcatraz gained worldwide notoriety due to its isolated location and reputation as home to America’s most notorious criminals, such as Robert Stroud and Al Capone. Several highly-publicized escape attempts were made by prisoners despite the prison’s supposedly inescapable fortifications; to this day, Alcatraz escape attempts continue to be the subject of great speculation. In 1963, after nearly thirty years of use, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered the prison to be closed, citing its high maintenance costs and quickly eroding structure as reasons to discontinue use.
Indians of All Tribes Occupation
In March of 1963, the prison officially closed, ending the island’s chapter as an infamous federal penitentiary. Six years after Alcatraz’s prison was closed, Richard Oakes led a group of approximately eighty Native American activists from various tribes, who named themselves the Indians of All Tribes, in occupying the island for nineteen months, starting on November 20, 1969. The Indians of All Tribes wanted to draw attention to the injustices directed at Native Americans throughout American history, specifically protesting government policies that acted to terminate Native American tribes. In order to draw attention to their cause, the Indians of All Tribes painted graffiti slogans on prison walls, prison doors, and the water tower—some of which were restored for visitors to view today, such as the water tower, pictured below. The federal government initially rejected the Indians of All Tribes’ occupation of Alcatraz, and attempted to force the group to vacate the premises by placing barricades around the island. These barricades proved ineffective, but authorities continued to insist upon the group’s departure from the island. Over the nineteen-month occupation, the Indians of All Tribes struggled to remain a cohesive organization, as members within the group struggled for power over one another.
By 1971, President Nixon and his administration became fed up with the Indians of All Tribes’ movement, and began developing a more active removal plan to end the occupation. On June 10, 1971, federal marshals and FBI agents stormed the island and removed the Indians of All Tribes from Alcatraz, ending the occupation. While the U.S. government failed to meet the specific demands of the Indians of All Tribes during the island’s occupation, the official government policy of terminating American Indian tribes eventually changed, and now a policy of Indian self-determination is in place.
Native American history is a theme that runs through all of these projects. The overarching goal for this project is to increase awareness of and educate people about the Native American history of Alcatraz Island. Funding for the projects is expected to come from the federal government, donations, and the $26 fee to visit Alcatraz Island. The success of the projects would depend on cooperation between researchers, the NPS, and the Native American community, in order to gain more information and implement the activities.
Project # 1: Increased Tangible Heritage on Alcatraz Island
Specific objectives for this project include drawing attention to the Native American heritage on Alcatraz Island and preserving remaining tangible heritage, particularly graffiti. This project would entail setting up plaques around the island to help users find the graffiti and help viewers decipher what they say, installing memorials, preserving the remaining graffiti and developing an interpretive trail as an audio tour.
Project # 2: Storytelling
The particular goals for this project are to honor and revitalize Native traditions of storytelling, to provide employment for Bay Area Native Americans, and to teach visitors about Native American values, such as community and respect for elders. During the activity the visitors would gather around the campfire. Traditional foods like fry bread and coffee would be served. The stories would concentrate on the Native American presence on the island, as well as some traditional Native American tales. The content and delivery would largely be at the discretion of the storyteller.
This activity would start on the ferry ride to Alcatraz, during which Native American actors would explain briefly the history of the occupation. On the island, the visitors would then be escorted to the Warden’s House, which was the Native American headquarters during the occupation. Here the audience would experience a celebratory powwow, and afterwards hear the story about life on Alcatraz during the occupation and the speech by Richard Oakes. Visitors would also experience aspects of Native American culture such as jewelry-making. Finally, actors dressed as US marshals would escort visitors back to the ferry.
Project # 4: Picture Scavenger Hunt
Some specific goals for this project include encouraging research on Native American history, increasing visitor participation and expanding the representation of the island’s Native American history online. The participants would listen to an informative talk about Native American history. They would then be lent cameras and given brochures outlining the subjects of the history, and instructed to go around the island and take pictures of each subject, which would finally be compiled on a web site.
Project # 5: A Play of Multiple Voices
This project aims to establish ties among the communities involved with Alcatraz Island and its history. For this activity, an online survey would be created, collecting the input from all the key players of Alcatraz Island. Some additional interviews could also be conducted. On the basis of the collected information the play would be written and performed.
To read more about these Project Profiles, please go to the main page (Alcatraz – Native American Presence and Occupation) in order to download the full Site Management Plan.
People on Site and Scientific Interest Groups
Currently no permanent populations live on the island. Most of the people present on the island are visitors, NPS park rangers, volunteers for the Alcatraz Garden project and contractors who work on renovation. No archaeological research is currently being done on Alcatraz, as most of the research has been taken off site.
Some of the key players are the organizations involved with Alcatraz, such as the PRBO and the U.S. Geological Survey, who are currently conducting a Landscape Survey. Outside of the NPS, there are groups that try to help keep our national parks accessible, such as The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), who are a nonpartisan group working to minimize threats to national parks.
Some other key players include visitors from different countries and regions, as well as recreationists like marathoners and hikers. The US National Park Service is working on developing sister park relationships with national parks all over the world. Other key players include school groups: part of the NPS budget is reserved for education.
Native Americans are also important key players for Alcatraz. This group includes the local Miwok and Ohlone Indians, those Indians who occupied Alcatraz from 1969 to 1971, and many other Native Americans for whom this island is a symbol of the Native American movement.
Local business key players include all hotels, shops, restaurants, and tour companies that have ties to Alcatraz Island.
Another group of key players includes the descendants of prisoners and the Federal Penitentiary employees at Alcatraz Island.
The following is a list of sponsors:
• Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy (The Gardens of Alcatraz)
• Federal Bureau of Prisons (Inmates perform maintenance work)
• The Friends of Civil War Alcatraz (docents of Civil War history)
• American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (solar panels to be installed on the island)
• Save American’s Treasures (Garden restoration)
• Alcatraz Cruises
The following is a list of academic partners:
• Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy Native Plant Nurseries
• American Youth Hostels
• Bay Area Discovery Museum
• Headlands Institute
• YMCA Point Bonita Outdoor & Conference Center San Francisco
To learn more, please go to the main page (Alcatraz – Native American Presence and Occupation) in order to download the full Site Management Plan.
By Tatyana Kovaleva
Ownership and Legal Status
Alcatraz Island is managed by the National Park Service, one of eight bureaus run by the Department of the Interior, a Cabinet-level agency of the US Government. It is a part of the NPS Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GOGA). As a national park, Alcatraz is under the jurisdiction of Parks, Forest, and Public Property Code of Federal Regulations.
Buildings and Visitor Facilities
The island as a NPS and GGNRA park.
There are numerous buildings on the island, including the Guardhouse, the Cellhouse, the Officer’s Club, the Warden’s House, the Lighthouse, the Warehouse, the Power Plant, the Electrical Repair Shop, the Modern Industries Building, the New Industries Building, the Morgue, and the Recreation Yard. There are also gardens, including the Officer’s Row Gardens alongside the Cellhouse. Alcatraz includes a Parade Ground area and numerous trails and pathways that are accessible to visitors such as the Agave Trail.
Condition of the Site
An example of the ruins at Alcatraz.
The condition of buildings on Alcatraz varies. Some buildings, such as the Cellhouse and the Guardhouse, are renovated and accessible to the public. Other buildings, like the New Industries Building, are renovated externally, but are closed to visitors. Some structures, like the Warden’s House, have nothing but outside walls remaining.
Many measures have been taken to preserve the man-made structures of Alcatraz and the natural features of the island. Organizations like PRBO, the US Geological Survey, Lutsko Associates, the Olmsted Center, and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy strive to preserve and properly manage the bird populations and the gardens of Alcatraz.
Current Points of Interpretation
The primary perspective of interpretation of Alcatraz is that of a federal penitentiary, because most of the surviving structures pertain to that period, which is also the most documented. Other aspects of history, such as the Native American presence or the military fort, are under-represented.
Tourist and Visitor Profiles
Alcatraz Cruises is the only commercial company that is allowed to dock on Alcatraz Island.
The Alcatraz experience is targeted at the general public, rather than specific groups. However, there are certain accommodations for groups with special needs, such as people with limited mobility. The Alcatraz management offers the Cellhouse guided audio tour in English, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Japanese, Dutch, Mandarin, Portuguese and Korean languages. Alcatraz Island does not have age-specific programs.
By Tatyana Kovaleva
The environmental aspects of Alcatraz Island can be divided into three categories: birds, rock formations, and plant life. Each of these categories has a unique value and varying stakeholders.
In 2007 there were 1078 pairs of birds on the island, including western gulls, pelagic cormorants, pigeon guillemots, a pair of black oystercatchers, snowy egrets and black crowned night herons. These birds have migrated to Alcatraz because of a decrease of crayfish on the Farallon Islands, and to escape the pollution of the SF Bay Area. The bird population of Alcatraz has an intrinsic value.
One of the issues with the birds is that they can be disturbed by tourists on the island and kayakers, causing them to abandon their nests along with their chicks. Their presence on Alcatraz thus limits the use and development of Alcatraz as a tourist attraction. Some sites are closed off to prevent disturbance to the nests. To meet these challenges the Golden Gate Park Conservancy has been working on and implementing strategy outlines in The Bird Conservation and Management Strategy for Historic Alcatraz Island. They are working with organizations such as PRBO Conservation Science and the US Geological Survey, who help monitor the birds.
The Geological Formation – the “Rock”
As with the bird population, the “Rock” itself has intrinsic value. Alcatraz has socio-cultural values, which include historical, cultural/symbolic and aesthetic values. The people who lived on the island, such as the Native Americans, army officers, prison inmates and prison wardens, had a connection with the island itself, and experienced its isolation.
Some of the most pressing problems with the “Rock” are the natural erosion of formations, damage caused by construction, and demolition of the debris remaining from conservation projects. The park staff are repairing water and electric systems, removing dangerous materials, stabilizing buildings and bringing them up to modern safety standards. Also, the park managers made the decision to sell the debris from reconstruction as souvenirs in the gift shop. This allows the debris to be cleaned up, and opens up another revenue stream for the park.
Officer Row Gardens
Another aspect of the environment is the plant life of Alcatraz. Besides having an intrinsic value, the plant life of Alcatraz also has socio-cultural values, such as historical, cultural/symbolic and aesthetic values. The gardens were cultivated by the various inhabitants of the island during each era. First, the gardens were planted and tended by the soldiers, then by prison inmates and officers’ families.
The biggest challenge for the gardens is the maintenance of the plants. Lutsko Associates, the Olmsted Center, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and the Garden Conservancy have combined their efforts to create a survey of the surviving plants and a plan for landscape maintenance and stabilization. These organizations created the Alcatraz Garden Project, which attracts volunteers to help maintain the gardens. In 2009, 613 volunteers put in 7,000 hours of service. During 2005-2007 plans for Main Road and Officer Row Gardens were implemented. The volunteers have also devised a rainwater irrigation system.
By Tatyana Kovaleva
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In determining the significance of Alcatraz Island, the island’s different values must be taken into account. Alcatraz Island has restitutive, cultural, economic, environmental, historical, social and spiritual values. It represents a pivotal moment for the Native American movement and also has considerable historic value as a former Military Fortress and as a Federal Penitentiary.
The environmental values of Alcatraz include unique geological formations, rare birds, and an abundance of plants. The flora on Alcatraz have significant value because they were introduced to the island and cultivated for decades.
Social, Spiritual and Symbolic Values
Since Alcatraz has a significant amount of history, it also has a significant amount of social, spiritual and symbolic value. For Native Americans the island stands as a symbol of Native American activism and to them it always has been and always will be “Indian Land”. With the advent of the “Unthanksgiving” ceremony, Alcatraz Island has also become a place with spiritual values. The island’s social values pertain to anyone who has had a relationship to the island, for example prisoners, prison guards and their families during the island’s time as a federal penitentiary.
By realizing the overall significance of Alcatraz Island, the National Park Service has created a well thought-out and comprehensive management plan that helps to preserve the island’s values and minimize the threats to the site. The aim of this management plan has been to conserve and protect the island’s significance and to make it available for future generations to appreciate. Nevertheless, the National Park Service should place more emphasis on the period (1969-1971) when it was occupied by Native Americans.
View of SF from Alcatraz
By Julia Frers-Karno
Alcatraz: A Brief History
18,000 years ago, at the end of the last glacial period, Alcatraz was a sandstone hill at the entrance to a valley. As the ice melted, the Pacific Ocean rose and the valley filled with seawater to become San Francisco Bay, while the hill became an island. According to the National Park Service, Native Americans have lived in the San Francisco Bay area for over 10,000 years. The two native groups that inhabited the area when the Spanish arrived in the late 18th Century were the Miwok and the Ohlone. The Miwok lived to the North of the Golden Gate, while the Ohlone lived to the South and the East.
Little is known about Alcatraz from the pre-contact period: based on oral histories it appears that local tribes gathered bird eggs there, and also used it as a place of banishment.
Alcatraz lighthouse was the first to be established on the west coast of the United States, and began operating in 1854. It was damaged during the 1906 earthquake, and replaced with a new lighthouse in 1909.
The commanders of the garrisons at Fort Point and the Presidio realized that Alcatraz would be a convenient place to send their worst offenders, and in 1861 it became a military prison.
Expansion of Prison
Beginning in 1909 the army demolished the original fort and replaced it with a huge prison complex which, when completed in 1912, was the largest reinforced concrete building in the world.
Because of the prison’s high maintenance costs, the Army handed it over in 1933 to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which turned it into a maximum-security federal penitentiary. During this time it housed some of the country’s most notorious criminals. Eventually, like the Army, the FBP decided that the prison was too expensive to maintain, and closed it in 1963. The island was now declared surplus federal property.
On March 9, 1964, five Sioux Indians occupied Alcatraz for a few hours, demanding that the government build a cultural center and an Indian university on the island. This protest inspired a group of Native students led by Richard Oakes to occupy the island for 19 months, beginning November 20, 1969. US Federal Marshals ended the occupation on June 10, 1971.
By Ian Wilson
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