Alcatraz Is Not an Island

James Fortier. | 60 minutes. Turtle Island Productions.

On November 20, 1969, sometime after 2 a.m., a fleet of wooden sailboats holding 90 Native Americans landed on Alcatraz. For the next 19 months, the group forcibly occupied the island, hoping to reclaim the rock “in the name of all American Indians.” Although federal marshals eventually removed the protesters, and their demands — including title to the island and the construction of a Native American university — were never granted, scholars view the two-year protest as a springboard for modern-day Indian activism.

James Fortier captures this overlooked chapter of the civil rights movement in his documentary Alcatraz Is Not an Island, which airs on PBS in November. With its straight-ahead, chronological narrative, the film often has a dry, educational feel. Nevertheless, by weaving together interviews with student occupiers and never-before-seen archival footage, Alcatraz creates a powerful snapshot of this revolutionary incident and gives life to the words of charismatic protest leader Richard Oakes: “Alcatraz is not an island. It’s an idea. It’s the idea that you can recapture and be in control of your life and your destiny.”


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.