For most people, Alcatraz Island is nothing more than a San Francisco tourist destination — home to the infamous penitentiary and Al Capone’s jail cell. But for Kris Longoria, who prefers to be known by her artist name, UrbanRezLife, Alcatraz Island is home.
From 1969 to 1971, when UrbanRezLife was eight years old, she and her family were among a group of nearly a hundred indigenous activists who occupied the island, protesting treaty violations and boldly demanding sovereignty. Eventually, the occupation was forcibly ended by the U.S. government — but not before awakening the American public, igniting indigenous activism nationwide, and directly affecting federal policy.
Fifty years later, the island is where UrbanRezLife goes to be by herself, reflect and even weep. “Alcatraz is my rez,” she said, shorthand for reservation. “I love Alcatraz with all my heart. It changed all of our lives — you can’t leave that space without taking it with you.”
“The Spark That Started the Fire”
The seeds for the Alcatraz occupation were planted over a decade before the activists stepped foot on the island. In 1956, the Indian Relocation Act — a law designed to encourage indigenous people to leave reservations and their traditional lands with the goal of assimilating them into urban areas — was passed.
The Indian Relocation Act was one of many “Indian termination policies” which sought to end the U.S. government’s recognition of tribe sovereignty, forcing indigenous people to become tax paying citizens that were subject to state and federal laws.
The urban migration as a result of the policy played a critical role in the forced termination of many federally-recognized tribes, and often left participants struggling to adjust to life in cities where they faced unemployment, discrimination and severance from their culture.
Because of the Indian Relocation Act, the population of Native Americans in cities like San Francisco skyrocketed. By the late 1960s, many participants in the relocation program, especially students from the Bay area, had begun organizing across tribal lines, championing “Red Power” and fighting for self-determination.
“Alcatraz shouldn’t be viewed as a singular event, but as part of a wider activism,” said Herb Butler, a native Alaskan activist who lived on the island during the occupation. “The relocation program allowed [American Indians] to compare notes on what was happening on a nationwide scale, so they could organize and start the movement.”
The final impetus for the occupation took place in October 1969, when a fire destroyed the San Francisco Indian Center. The center had been at the heart of the urban indigenous community, providing them with jobs, health care and a haven to hold pow wows in peace. The loss of the Indian Center was devastating, but it was also what UrbanRezLife calls “the spark that started the fire.”
“We Hold ‘The Rock’”
Before dawn on November 20, 1969, a boat carrying nearly 80 indigenous activists arrived on the chilly shores of Alcatraz. The island, which is 22 acres and only 1.5 miles from San Francisco, had once been reserved for housing infamous criminals. However, it hadn’t been touched since it was shut down in 1963 — making it the perfect location for a new Indian cultural center. To justify reclaiming Alcatraz, the activists cited the Treaty of Fort Laramie, an 1868 agreement between the United States and the Sioux stating that all abandoned federal land was to be returned to native people.
Upon their arrival, activists wrote in bold red letters across the water tower: “Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free Indian Land.”