You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Liberating Alcatraz on Hanukkah

December 7, 2017

On this date in 1969, Reform Rabbi Roger Herst (second from right) and members of the American Jewish Congress brought badly needed food and blankets, as well as a khanike menorah, to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay to celebrate the liberation holiday with 400 Native Americans who had been occupying the island since November 20. The Native Americans, led by the Indians of All Tribes alliance, claimed the island after the 1963 closure of Alcatraz penitentiary and under the terms of the 1868 U.S.-Sioux Treaty of Fort Laramie, which had promised to return all abandoned and out-of-use federal lands to Native peoples (“... one of the innumerable treaties with the Indians that have been violated,” as Jewish Currents commented in January 1970). “It was right in the middle of Chanukah,” Herst later recalled, “which corresponded well with the theme of liberation espoused by Native American tribal leaders. Indians from around the nation kept arriving all day long from small launches.” The 19-month occupation would peter out and ultimately fail to take back Alcatraz, but it would inspire the annual Un-Thanksgiving Day ceremony held there, and increase the visibility and strength of the Native American rights movement generally.

“We put Indians and Indian rights smack dab in the middle of the public consciousness for the first time since the so-called Indian Wars.... The American Indian Movement laid the groundwork for the next stage in regaining our sovereignty and self-determination as a nation, and I’m proud to have been a part of that.” —Russell Means, Oglala Lakota activist