Lesson 1: ALCATRAZ IS NOT AN ISLAND: Victory from Loss

Grade Level: 8-12 (8-10 grade teachers should modify portions of this lesson to fit their students' knowledge of history and analysis skills.)

Subjects: Civics, American History, Government

Materials Needed
Correlation to National Standards


Today many tourists who come to Alcatraz Island see it only as the cold, desolate remains of the most notorious federal prison, yet to a large number of Americans it remains a symbol of hope. A takeover of the island by American Indians in 1969 became one of the most successful Indian protest actions and fueled the rise of modern Native American activism.

In this lesson, students will: identify what elements of the takeover made it a historically significant event; explore how it became a catalyst for a wave of Indian protest; and compare and contrast the experiences of the Native American rights movement with the African American civil rights movements.

Understanding the significance of Alcatraz will also help illuminate the plight of American Indians for many students and permit them to see a modern example of how an event, battle, occurrence, or moment in time can take on great significance to a culture. Even struggles that might be considered as an overall loss may ultimately have valuable lessons to teach. Usually such lessons are taught using older examples ranging from Thermopolae to Dunkirk, which seem distant and foreign.

Estimated Time: In addition to watching ALCATRAZ IS NOT AN ISLAND, the lesson and its activities will take ninety minutes, making it appropriate for a block schedule.


Student will learn to: Materials needed:


1. The teacher will take students through a guided examination — either on video or the Web site — of those portions of ALCATRAZ IS NOT AN ISLAND that reveal key elements of its success in the eyes of the participants. These would include, among others:
  1. The activists' use of media; www.pbs.org/alcatrazisnotanisland/people.html
  2. The use of irony in the proclamation and the proposal to buy the island for trinkets; www.pbs.org/alcatrazisnotanisland/landings.html
  3. The appeal to the 1868 treaty between the U.S. government and the Great Sioux nation, to see how distinct nations might interpret the language differently; (available at http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/lessons/sioux_treaty_1868/sioux_treaty_1868.html)
  4. Turning Alcatraz Island into a symbol; www.pbs.org/alcatrazisnotanisland/occupation.html
  5. Drawing supporters from all parts of the United States. www.pbs.org/alcatrazisnotanisland/activism.html
A worksheet may be given to the students viewing the program to assist them in completing a close analytic viewing or reading. As an alternative, the teacher may want to distribute excerpts from the video on the teacher's answer key so that students may discuss the passages.

2. Upon completing this work, discuss with students the various elements so that they are better able to perceive why the occupation was so inspirational for Native Americans and those concerned about the rights of others.

3. Assign the students to illustrate why the occupation was so inspirational by designing a poster commemorating the event. It would have to feature:
4. Now that students are familiar with the Alcatraz takeover and may also be familiar with the subsequent takeovers of federal facilities, students should be asked to compare and contrast this event with the Greensboro sit-ins, a seminal event in the African American civil rights struggle. To do so, ask the students to apply the same analytical tools they used to view ALCATRAZ IS NOT AN ISLAND to the story of the sit-ins found at http://www.sitins.com/ or view the episode of Eyes on the Prize called "Ain't Scared of Your Jails (1960-1961)" which looks at the effect the student-led sit-ins had on the momentum of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s.

5. When they have completed their work ask the students to identify those elements common to both Alcatraz and Greensboro. Ask the students to identify how those events differed, especially focusing on the goals of the two movements.


A potential assessment exercise is to ask the students to complete an evaluative (and graded) essay (can be adapted, if teachers prefer, to a PowerPoint presentation or report) using the quotation from Richard Oakes at the end of the program, "ALCATRAZ IS NOT AN ISLAND. It's an idea." Students will be asked to explain the meaning of the statement.


An appropriate assignment that may extend this lesson is to ask students to research one of several subsequent protests - such as BIA, Plymouth Rock, and Wounded Knee - and report their findings to the class. In the assignment ask the students to look for specific evidence that connects the event they researched to the takeover of Alcatraz.


Illustrations on the web

Native American art in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts

National Museum of the American Indian (few illustrations)

Museum of the Native American Resource Center, University of North Carolina, Pembroke

Native American animal drawings and stories prepared by students at the Dulles High School in Missouri City, Texas

Symbols, many from Pueblo Indians, and a text explaining their meaning

Native American Art - "who stole the tee pee?" Contemporary Indian art from the Smithsonian

Correlation to National Standards:
(from National Science Education Standards http://books.nap.edu/html/nses/html/6e.html)

United States History
Era 9 - Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
Standard 29

Understands the struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties Level IV
Grade: 9-12

1. Understands how diverse groups united during the civil rights movement (e.g., the escalation from civil disobedience to more radical protest, issues that led to the development of the Asian Civil Rights Movement and the Native American Civil Rights Movement, the issues and goals of the farm labor movement and La Raza Unida)


What are the Basic Values and Principals of American Democracy
Standard 11

Understands the role of diversity in American life and the importance of shared values, political beliefs, and civic beliefs in an increasingly diverse American society

Lesson Plan Author

James McGrath Morris is a member of the social studies department of West Springfield High School in Virginia. He joined Fairfax County Public Schools in 1996 after a career in journalism and publishing. During his first year of teaching Morris was nominated for the Sallie Mae First Class Teacher Award. His work in American history has been published in Civilization, Journal of Policy History, Journal of Historical Studies, Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, New Mexico Historical Review, and Missouri Life, among other places. As an author or editor, Morris has published four books. He is currently at work on a biography of a turn-of-the-century New York journalist to be published by Fordham University Press.