sioux treaty of 1868

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On this day in history in 1934, a federal prison opened on Alcatraz Island built to house the most dangerous prisoners and ones with a pension for escaping. The prison held notorious criminals such as gangsters Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. In 1963 the prison closed due to high expense of maintenance. Later in 1964, members of the Sioux tribe occupied Alcatraz Island, citing an 1868 treaty with the US government and Sioux allowing them to claim any unoccupied government land. The occupation grew in 1969 when hundreds of Native students, protesters, and activists from across the country gathered for the Alcatraz Occupation. It became a place where many found their voices in the shadow of the Civil Rights movement and in the face of continued injustices perpetrated on American Indians by the United States government. In 1971 federal marshals forced everyone to clear the island. Shortly after, the island became a public recreation area maintained by the National Park Service. In 2001, filmmaker James Fortier brought his documentary Alcatraz Is Not an Island to the Sundance Film Festival to shed light on this important historic event. The film features archival footage and photography as well as a series of interviews with participants of the Alcatraz Occupation. 

Film still and poster courtesy of Alcatraz Is Not an Island

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November 20th 1969: Occupation of Alcatraz begins

On this day in 1969, the occupation of Alcatraz in San Francisco by the Indians of All Tribes movement began. The occupation lasted for nineteen months, ending on June 11th 1971. Inspired by wider civil rights efforts in the 1960s, the Red Power movement advocated the cause of American Indians. Activists argued that Alcatraz island, site of a disused penitentiary, belonged to indigenous Americans by an 1868 treaty between the US government and Sioux. A small group first occupied the island, for only four hours, on March 8th 1964; they offered to pay the government the same as was offered the Sioux - just under $10 for the whole island. However, the long-term occupation did not begin until November 20th 1969 when fourteen activists (79 tried to get to the island but were blocked by the Coast Guard) took the island. They intended to reclaim the island and establish Native American museums and research centres. Supporters brought food and supplies to the occupiers and some joined the group, with 400 protestors at the occupation’s height. Public support for the occupation eventually dwindled and protestors began to leave, allowing the government to come in and remove the remaining fifteen protestors. While immediately unsuccessful, the occupation of Alcatraz helped draw international attention to the situation of American Indians and promoted the rise of indigenous activism. Between 1970 and 1971, the Nixon administration increased funding for Indian health care and scholarships. The occupation of Alcatraz is commemorated today with the island’s ‘Unthanksgiving Day’ which celebrates the rights of indigenous Americans.

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April 29th 1868: Fort Laramie Treaty signed

On this day in 1868, the Fort Laramie Treaty was signed by the United States government and representatives of the Sioux Nation. The treaty officially recognised the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming as part of the Great Sioux Reservation, and set the land aside for the exclusive use of its indigenous inhabitants. During the nineteenth century, spurred by the overcrowding of Eastern states and by the providential mission of ‘Manifest Destiny’, Americans increasingly sought to expand westward. As settlers encroached on Native American land, violence became an integral part of life on the frontier. A congressional committee report in 1867 encouraged the establishment of an Indian Peace Commission, with the intention of ending the conflict. The U.S. government sought to make treaties with Native Americans which would force them to give up their land and move onto western reservations. One such treaty was made in Fort Laramie, Wyoming, in 1868. However, the U.S. soon sent General George Custer to the Black Hills in 1874 in search of gold mines. Once gold was discovered, prospectors descended on the area, and the army began to confront the Sioux. In 1876, Custer’s army at the Little Bighorn river was annihilated by Sioux and Cheyenne fighters. Despite this devastating loss, the war continued, and in 1877 the United States confiscated the Black Hills. The Sioux people continued to protest the illegal seizure of their ancestral land. They won a significant legal victory in 1980, when the Supreme Court ordered financial compensation for the loss of the land; the Sioux, however, refused payment and continued to demand the return of their land.

“From this day forward all war between the parties to this agreement shall for ever cease. The government of the United States desires peace, and its honor is hereby pledged to keep it.”
- Article I of the Fort Laramie Treaty, 1868