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The Sausalito-Indian Navy

Compiled by Larry Clinton

In the early morning hours of November 20, 1969, American Indians set out to occupy Alcatraz Island, following a failed earlier attempt. What few people recall is that they were transported to The Rock by a “navy” of Sausalito waterfront types, including no name bartender Peter Bowen and sailor/photojournalist Brooks Townes.  The following recollection is excerpted from their monograph “The Sausalito-Indian Navy.”


At about 1:00 a.m., two men came into the bar and asked for  Brooks and me.  One was large, not particularly tall, but broad across the beam.  He wore a flat brimmed, high, round-top black cowboy hat with a colorful feather stuck in its band, and a red serape.  The other, bareheaded, burly and compact, carried himself with a kind of tough swagger, under which lurked a smoldering dignity they both shared.  [Al] Miller introduced himself and his friend, Richard Oakes.  We had a couple of drinks and went over the ground rules. . .

In the meantime, it being a quiet night at the bar and pretty brisk outside, a couple dozen Indians had come into the bar behind Miller and Oakes.  Customers fell silent and stared.   . . they were young, some underage to be in the bar, and some in traditional Indian dress. . . At a word from me, Oakes eased most of them back outside.  He urged they keep a low profile. . .

We all soon went outside.  The Indians were assembling – and disassembling – in the big parking lots along Sausalito’s downtown waterfront.  . . When the prowl cars drifted near, searchlights probing, the Indians would vanish, melting into the night like the fog that appeared and disappeared around hills and waterfront. . .

Once across Bridgeway, in the parking lots, we were surrounded by Indians.  There were 92 with blanket rolls, sleeping bags, knapsacks of belongings, bags of food, bundles of cooking gear. . . We decided there was no way we could make the whole thing in one trip. We decided on second trips for [Bob] Teft’s and my boats while Oakes and Miller organized the Indians into groups for each trip.  Then Mary [Crowley] made a discovery: the engine on her borrowed cutter was not working; she was going to have to make the trip under sail.  That also meant she’d likely only be able to make one trip and that one could be tough.  Sailing at night, overloaded with Indians, braving the notorious black currents around the Rock and making a safe landing would be a challenge for any skipper.  Mary wasn’t “any skipper.”

We packed them into the boats like cordwood. . . The Indians would pile down onto the finger piers until their feet were underwater. The piers would support only about ten people. Meanwhile, the Sausalito police were still on land dashing hither and yon trying to locate crowds of people who continued to vanish like wisps of smoke. . .

We were trying to keep everyone quiet. Along every dock live-aboards were trying to sleep. “Hey, what’s that?! Lookout there! “ one of our crowd shouted, pointing across the water toward Alcatraz several miles away. It appeared Alcatraz was ablaze with dozens of very bright white lights. . .”God, how’d we ever count on so many people being able to keep their mouths shut?” Brooks said. . . Visions of confiscated boats danced in the air.

In the papers, the Feds had made it clear they’d make it hard on Indians – and anyone who helped them – who landed on the Rock.  It seemed entirely likely our plans had been leaked. And, the Indians had just ten days earlier promised in a press conference they’d be back . . .

A friend in an outboard skiff ran Brooks out into the bay where he could better see what was up.  The lights, he was relieved to discover, were on huge sand dredge working in the ship channel about half way out to The Rock – directly in line between Alcatraz and Sausalito.  Whew. . .

Bob, Mary and I agreed it was wise to head out first toward Belvedere/Tiburon, leaving the dredge and Alcatraz well to the west, then – when the boats’ running lights would be lost in the clutter of lights ashore in Berkeley and neighboring towns -- we’d douse our running lights and make for The Rock.

We cast off and motored quietly out of the harbor, running lights aglow.  The casual observer might think we were yachtsmen getting an early start on a vacation – we hoped.  Just outside the harbor entrance, I stepped on one of the blanket rolls stowed in the rear of SEAWEED’s cockpit.  A modified squeal erupted.  Richard Oakes had broken my no-children rule.  His eleven or twelve year old daughter Yvonne was in that blanket, but it was too late to turn back.  Later, I would question myself deeply about not turning around at that moment.  Weeks later, Yvonne would be killed [in a fall] on The Rock. . .

So, in the dark morning hours of that November day, the three boats of “The Indian Navy” ferried 92 adults and at least two children to the most formidable and inhospitable piece of real estate anywhere near San Francisco Bay.  For prisoners who had been incarcerated there and their guards, I imagine that the thing that drove them most was the notion that one day whey might return to a more livable place. . . Our passengers planned to live out there; the difference was that these people saw Alcatraz as the symbol of new hope – for themselves, for a people too long forgotten and invisible to most of white America.


The Alcatraz occupation lasted until June, 1971.  The full Bowen and Townes monograph is in the Sausalito Historical Society collection.


Peter Bowen (l.) and Brooks Townes aboard Peter’s boat the SEAWEED in Sausalito Yacht Harbor on the 30th anniversary of landing the Indians on Alcatraz.

Photo courtesy of Brooks Townes

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