Lesson 2: ALCATRAZ IS NOT AN ISLAND: Sovereignty is the Goal

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


Most Americans treasure the U.S. Constitution. Particularly for many disenfranchised groups, the U.S. Constitutional system has afforded a means for redress, though sometimes at an excruciatingly slow pace. The takeover of Alcatraz brought Indian rights issues to the attention of the federal government and American public, changing forever the way Native people viewed themselves, their culture and their need for self-determination.

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. Read the following two quotations from the video ALCATRAZ IS NOT AN ISLAND to your students (Handout). Student may also view video clips of those who participated in the takeover at www.pbs.org/alcatrazisnotanisland/people.html.

Mankiller: In 1969, there was a group of people who were willing to stand up and say, "We want our freedom. We want to be made a people. We want the right to self-determination." It was a revolutionary act.

Johnson: One thing that's important to understand is the demands do not change, the vision does not change. They had wanted title to the island. They had wanted an Indian university, a culture center. They were united in demanding self-determination, sovereignty, title of that island, and, and that those things be established. It never changed.

2. Point out to the students that at the heart of the demands of the Indian activists, as these two quotations illustrate, was a desire for self-determination, or sovereignty. (See the background - www.pbs.org/alcatrazisnotanisland/background.html - and Indian activism - www.pbs.org/alcatrazisnotanisland/activism.html - areas of the Web site.)

3. Provide them with the standard definition of sovereignty. (i.e. A 17th century European political concept meant to represent supreme and absolute authority within territorial boundaries).

4. Inform the students they will now work in groups to explore in greater depth what sovereignty means to Native American rights advocates. (The teacher may want to refer to the annexation of Hawaii and Puerto Rico, the East Timor fight for independence, or the Palestinian conflict, to provide contemporary examples.)

5. The groups will then be asked to write a formal definition of sovereignty from the perspective of their reading. Use as a model a dictionary or glossary definition, showing the students that a complete definition explains the term using other words.

6. As a closing exercise, read the following to the students:

Today there are more than half a million Indians in the United States. They speak more than 100 different languages and live on about 300 federal and 21 state reservations and outside of reservations, primarily in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oklahoma City and Albuquerque, among other cities. Although the reservations are sovereign nations, Indian people are also considered U.S. citizens. This dichotomy continues to be a barrier to coexistence between the Indian nations and the United States. The Denver Post surveyed half-dozen leaders from various Indian groups and they listed the following as their key issues: "These were our issues 100 years ago, they were our issues 500 years ago, and they are our issues now," say Lisa Harjo, a Choctaw from Oklahoma who is director of the Denver Indian Center. "Policymakers make uninformed decisions about (American Indians) because they don't understand us," Harper says. "Misinformation reigns. Policies are based on what they think our communities want, which often doesn't comport with the reality of what we want."

7. Ask the students, in their groups, to write rewrite the definition of sovereignty that they offered in such a way that it could be accepted by both the United States government and Indian tribes.


The teacher may want to consider having students develop, in writing, a proposal to resolve the often conflicting goals of national sovereignty sought by the U.S. federal government and those sought by Native Americans. The writing could involve authentic assessment by having the students complete it as a letter to a policy maker.


A lesson using documents from the Sioux Treaty of 1868 compiled by the National Archives.

A reading on Kosovo that illuminates the tension between globalism and sovereignty.

The first in a series of four lessons that explore various demographic and political changes in the students' homeland from a site devoted to Native perspective on the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

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


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

What is Government and What Should it Do?
Standard 1
Understands ideas about civic life, politics, and government
What are the Basic Values and Principals of American Democracy

Standard 8
Understands the central ideas of American constitutional government and how this form of government has shaped the character of American society

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
How Does the Government Established by the Constitution Embody the Purposes, Values, and Principles of American Democracy?

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.