Occupying Occupied Land

Four hundred years ago, the Dutch acquired the island of Manhattan for $24 according to some estimates. Over the next several hundred years, colonists from Western Europe would continue to invade the rest of the continent with settlements, lies, and force. As protesters take to the streets and occupy parks around the world, many have pointed to the fact that this land is already occupied, and some say it should be taken back.

In November of 1969, several activists tried to do just that, and in so doing they started a movement. After the prison at Alcatraz Island was closed, many Native Americans in the Bay Area wanted the island returned to natives. There were several attempts to occupy the island, and although two attempts were foiled, the activists were not prosecuted. On November 20, about 80 activists ferried their way to the island in the middle of the night and began their occupation, demanding that a Native American Studies center and museum be built on the island. They offered to pay for the island in order to make it legitimate. They offered the government $24 worth of blankets and beads.

The occupation became a community, with many living in the warden’s house and boats carrying food and supplies running regular routes. They set up a tribal council and school, and quickly began daily broadcasts on the radio. Early in the occupation, members of the American Indian Movement visited the occupation to learn more about the action. Later, AIM would use these tactics in huge actions like the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC.

Despite wide support, the occupation ran into trouble. The fuel, electricity, and telephone lines all broke over time. A fire broke out, destroying the warden house that many called home. And some drug addicts had moved to the island, giving it a bad image. Over the months, the population began to dwindle until government officials evicted the final fifteen activists.

The occupation had lasted 19 months, raising awareness of native rights and the movement for more recognition. It sparked a movement that eventually led to several legislative victories, even if they did not achieve everything they set out to do.

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