The Hopis of Alcatraz

Long before Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly were inmates, 19 “subversive” men were incarcerated at the notorious prison. This is the story of the largest band of American Indians ever held on the Rock.

the 19 hopis as prisoners at alcatraz, 1895
The 19 Hopis as prisoners at Alcatraz, 1895.

On the rainy morning of January 3, 1895, a group of Hopi men waited on San Francisco’s Clay Street wharf for the prison boat to Alcatraz. Wrapped in striped blankets, the 19 Indians stood out, even in a city like San Francisco, filled with people from all over the world. Some of the Hopis were gray-haired and bowed with age; others, scarcely out of their teens. None of them spoke English, and although they all knew about a vast water world to the West, it’s unlikely that any of them had seen the ocean before. Their leader was Lomahongiwma, a sturdy-looking middle-aged man with a broad face; the older, more frail-looking Yukiwma was his right-hand man. Lomahongiwma and Yukiwma had been imprisoned together before for resisting U.S. rule, but Alcatraz represented the harshest sentence yet.

In San Francisco during the Gilded Age, horse-drawn trolleys arrived and departed carrying loads of passengers; vendors’ cries filled the air. The Ferry Building was under noisy construction, and ships loaded with merchandise pushed past the dock. San Francisco was the most important city in the West, four times bigger than sleepy Los Angeles.

The government’s boat, McDowell, steamed toward the pier. The ship docked, and soldiers motioned to the men to get on board.

The next morning, the San Francisco Call thrilled readers with the story of “nineteen Apache warriors” destined for the dungeons of Alcatraz. Leading with the headline “Ready Scalpers,” the article luridly described the cavalry’s hunt for and capture of “Rattlesnake Jack” and his men for “butchering Indians and white men alike.” That afternoon, the San Francisco Chronicle echoed this tale. “Nineteen murderous-looking Apache Indians were brought here under strong guard,” the newspaper announced, “condemned to spend time on the Rock.” The United States was winding down its Indian Wars, and in the consciousness of many Americans, only one kind of Indian loomed: bloodthirsty.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. The men called themselves Hopisinom, or “all peaceful people named after the earth steward: Hopi,” and practiced a religion based on nonviolence that reached back millennia. The 19 prisoners came from Orayvi, a pueblo village in the high desert of northern Arizona about 130 miles east of the Grand Canyon. After thousands of years of migrating across the Southwest, the Hopis had founded Orayvi on Third Mesa sometime before 1150, making it the oldest continuously occupied town in North America.

In the centuries that followed, six more Hopi villages were settled on First and Second Mesas. But Orayvi (roughly 20 miles from Second Mesa) remained the largest. Over 900 people—nearly half the tribal population—lived there in 1895, and many Hopis considered Orayvi their capital. U.S. authorities called it the seat of Hopi resistance.

From their homes high on Third Mesa, the villagers of Orayvi could see for hundreds of miles, the land below them vast swatches of muted yellows and beige-greens. Piñon and juniper trees dotted the landscape, and the remains of reddish-blue volcanoes stood out in the distance. In winter, the temperatures plunged below zero. In summer, heat baked the orange-red sand and rocks. Everywhere water was scarce.

Hopi men under armed guard following their arrest by Captain Constant Williams at Orayvi, Arizona, 1894.
Hopi men under armed guard following their arrest by Captain Constant Williams at Orayvi, Arizona, 1894.


Six weeks before the Hopis arrived in San Francisco, conflict brought Indian agent Captain Constant Williams to Orayvi. On the chilly afternoon of November 25, 1894, Williams climbed the steep cliffs of Third Mesa on horseback, bringing two cavalry troops and a Hotchkiss cannon with him. The captain ordered every villager into the central plaza and lined up leaders of two factions that had formed in Orayvi, the Progressives and the Traditionals, as many people called them. After wheeling the cannon into full view, he commanded each group to make a statement.

The village chief, Loololma, a strong, thin man with graying hair and heavy-lidded eyes, spoke for the Progressives. On visiting Washington, D.C., four years before, he had been impressed by the sheer number of people and buildings, and he had left convinced that the only way for the Hopis to survive was to cooperate with the U.S. government. According to Williams’s report, Loololma said that “he and his people, perceiving the advantages of education and the adoption of Washington ways (i.e. civilized habits) had sent their children to school.” But Traditionals had resisted and threatened them. First they tried to stop Progressives from enrolling their children in the government’s boarding schools. Then they seized the Progressives’ fields west of Orayvi and said they would continue to take farmland—fields that both groups claimed belonged to them—as long as the Progressives complied with the U.S. authorities by sending their children to school, learning English, and farming only on designated tracts of land.

Lomahongiwma stepped forward for the Traditionals, who numbered more than half the village. He denounced the Progressives for abandoning Hopi traditions, practices that had brought them a good life in the desert. He freely admitted that the Traditionals had taken the Progressives’ land. And they would take more, he vowed, if the Progressives continued to depart from their old Orayvi ways. The Traditionals, Lomahongiwma told Williams, did not want to “walk the Washington path.” They did not want to wear white man’s clothes; they did not want to send their children to school. What they wanted was to be left alone.

Stewart B. Koyiyumptewa of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office tells me that Williams’s report does not tell the whole story. “Mormons had recently settled in that area west of Orayvi—near present-day Tuba City—and they took Hopi fields for their own. The government sided with the white settlers and worked to stop the Hopis from farming there.” Though the Traditionals’ refusal to send their children to school was part of the United States’ case against them, what triggered this particular incident was the Mormon land grab.

Efforts to force Orayvi children into government boarding schools—which aimed to convert the Indians to Christianity and erase the Hopi language and culture—had been going on for nearly a decade. Soldiers and armed Navajo policemen would arrive at the village in the morning, make a “clean sweep,” and haul children away. Yukiwma, Lomahongiwma’s number two, would later say, “Our children were taken by force. They were dragged from the fields and from the rocks and from their homes, if they hid away they were shot at. Their fathers and mothers were kicked and they as well as the children were dragged out and dragged to school.”

The Hopi village of Orayvi, on Third Mesa, 1898.
The Hopi village of Orayvi, on Third Mesa, 1898.

Painful memories of these school raids persist today. A Hopi elder descended from both Progressives and Traditionals recalls her grandmother’s stories for me. “When the government soldiers came to the mother village of Orayvi to take the children, parents hid them in every possible place: under rabbit-skin blankets and curled inside narrow storage alcoves. Boys were taken out to faraway sheep camps so the schoolmen couldn’t find them.”

After both groups had finished their statements on November 25, Williams charged the Traditionals with sedition and arrested Lomahongiwma and Yukiwma, as well as 17 other identified ringleaders. There was no hearing, no trial, no judge. Hopis, like all American Indians then, were considered inferior and had been declared noncitizen wards of the government. Any decision by a U.S. authority was absolute.

The cavalry forced the Hopis to run alongside armed soldiers on horseback across 40 miles of desert to the closest guardhouse, in Keams Canyon to the east. Then they rode in wagons, arriving four days later at Fort Wingate, near Gallup, New Mexico. There the men were imprisoned and remained incarcerated while D.M. Browning, the U.S. commissioner of Indian affairs, deliberated their fate. In late December, Browning sentenced the 19 Hopis to confinement and hard labor. The Indians would be held, Browning declared, “until such time that they show beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have fully realized the error of their evil ways.” Browning chose the military prison on Alcatraz because it was remote, almost a thousand miles from “the scene of the trouble.”


On January 3, after a long train ride through Los Angeles and up the California coast, the Hopis’ boat trip to Alcatraz was mercifully short, less than 30 minutes. Armed guards waited for the men at the dock, then marched them to Lower Prison, a warren of dark cells hugging the island’s eastern shore that has long since been torn down. There the men were stripped of their Hopi clothing and given discarded army uniforms with a large white P—for “prisoner”—painted on the back. Each man was isolated in a three-by-six-foot jail cell smaller than those used for solitary confinement at Alcatraz’s federal penitentiary, built nearly 40 years later. Confined on a tiny island and surrounded by strangers and water stretching in all directions, the Hopis must have felt as if they had been dropped into an alien world.

In February, a Call reporter arrived to cover the Hopis’ second month in prison. Instead of “murderous,” as the San Francisco Chronicle had described them, the newsman characterized the Indians as “noble reds wearing an air of eternal calm.” One group, he wrote, worked on the island’s hillside: “They have a pile of logs near them and that particular detachment saws on these logs one by one until they are cut into lengths fit of use—what use no one deigns to explain.” Another group labored on a high bank, driving huge spikes into timber pilings: “They never looked up from their task and hammered away with the unskillful irregularity of inexperienced but dogged men.” The armed guard nearby told the reporter that “the men learn rapidly and are anxious to do as they are told, faithfully obeying orders.”

Alcatraz’s Commander Francis Guenther, a stocky man who had been decorated in the Civil War, likewise praised the prisoners. “These Indians,” he wrote, “do the work required of them willingly. They…have given no trouble whatever, and have all behaved in the best possible manner.” Good behavior may well have been a Hopi strategy to win early release.

The Hopi men visit Mayor Adolph Sutro’s mansion. Lomahongiwma (center) wears a ceremonial robe and a sash and holds an army officer’s hat.
The Hopi men visit Mayor Adolph Sutro’s mansion. Lomahongiwma (center) wears a ceremonial robe and a sash and holds an army officer’s hat.

Guenther arranged for the Indians to visit San Francisco, an invitation never extended before or after to any Alcatraz prisoner. The commander wanted the men to see “the benefits of education…and the practical working of civilization” for themselves, in the hope of “Americanizing” them. They would be guests of Mayor Adolph Sutro, a self-made millionaire and patron of local schools.

The Hopis were treated like visiting dignitaries in San Francisco. On February 9, they toured City Hall, a palatial edifice in the process of being built. A reporter from the Chronicle met the 19 men there. “The unusual spectacle of Indians stalking the corridors and departments of the new city hall under the guidance of the United States Army was seen yesterday,” he wrote. “In order that they might be duly impressed with the advantages of civilization, each brave was furnished with a cigar.”

Next, the Hopis rode a steam train down California Street, then north along the Golden Gate. Finally, high on a cliff facing the Pacific Ocean, Sutro’s spectacular mansion appeared, surrounded by ornate Italian-style gardens. The mayor, a tall man with bushy white sideburns, gave the Hopis a personal tour of his estate, probably pointing out his life-size replicas of classical Greek and Roman statues that epitomized Western culture.

Sutro served the Indians a “bountiful luncheon,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported, a meal that likely included coffee, bread, stewed fruit, and a weak claret. Afterward, the Hopis were assembled on the mansion grounds for a photograph. In the center of the group stood Lomahongiwma, wearing a ceremonial robe and decorative sash and holding an army officer’s hat. Both the robe and the hat were signs of the soldiers’ respect for the man they’d come to call Uncle Joe, who used sign language and what little English he’d learned in Arizona guardhouses to communicate with his captors. In the photograph, the Hopis look stiff and posed, even by 19th-century norms. Lomahongiwma stares off into the distance instead of directly at the camera; other men gaze up at the sky. Instead of looking impressed by the splendors of San Francisco, the Hopis appear distracted.

In March, the Traditionals visited San Francisco again, this time touring a large public school. Then the excursions stopped. “I should have been glad to have taken them to the city oftener,” Guenther wrote, “but could not see that it would be of any advantage unless there was some one with them who could talk to them and explain what they saw or heard.” His repeated requests for an interpreter had gone unfulfilled.

April 1895 turned out to be one of the wettest months in San Francisco in years. But on Alcatraz, rain meant mud, not much-needed water for the cornfields the men would have been planting had they been home. Fog and wind off the bay chilled them to the bone, and even the air smelled different, briny. In addition to sawing logs and driving stakes, the Hopis shoveled coal and maintained Alcatraz’s roadways, such as they were. After work, the island would have been quiet, the sounds of San Francisco—a mile and a half away—sometimes wafting across the bay: the clanging of a cable car, hooves ringing out on the cobblestones, the occasional voice.

If the Traditionals observed any ceremonies on Alcatraz, no one made note of it. But given the all-important role of religion in Hopi life, it’s likely the men maintained their traditions in some way, especially when they were alone. Perhaps Lomahongiwma sang songs at sunrise that he had been taught as a boy in the kiva, the Hopi underground religious chamber. Yukiwma and others may have made prayer feathers with plumes dropped by seabirds overhead. Certainly the Hopis marked changes in the sun’s passage across the sky that signaled spring was turning to summer.

In July, an unexpected letter arrived. H.R. Voth, a missionary in Orayvi, wrote Commander Guenther for news of the prisoners. “Are they all living yet?” Voth asked. “Should any of them have died would you have the kindness to let me know?” Over six months had gone by with no contact. The families were worried that their husbands, sons, or fathers had drowned, been shot by soldiers, or died from a white man’s disease.

“The Indians are all doing very well,” the commander responded. “They have been well fed and clothed, take their baths regularly and are clean and apparently pretty well contented though I suppose, of course, they are anxious to return home to their families and their little possessions.” He added, “They have probably been as well off here as they would have been anywhere.” As proof, he enclosed two photographs: one of the Hopis lined up in front of the Alcatraz lighthouse with a guard nearby; the other of the 19 men wrapped in Hopi blankets only partially concealing their prison uniforms.

In July, Guenther petitioned Commissioner Browning in Washington for the Hopis’ release. Browning laid the decision before the U.S. secretary of the interior, saying that the Indians had reportedly been “well behaved and without exception well disposed to comply with all orders concerning them.” Browning assured the secretary that the prisoners “are anxious to return to their families, and will comply with orders given to them rather than undergo another separation.”

Still, the 19 Hopis remained in prison for nearly two more months. During their last week on Alcatraz, they finally received word from Orayvi. The news was not good. Two newborns had died while their fathers were away. Lomahongiwma’s and Yukiwma’s families were well, but two other Traditionals had lost their brothers; another man, his uncle. One prisoner’s wife, tired of his long absence, had left him for another man. Guenther’s reassurances to the contrary, the Hopis’ incarceration had taken a high toll on them as well as their families.

Yukiwma became chief of Hotvela, a village founded by Traditionals to flee persecution and live according to Hopi custom. He was jailed repeatedly.
Yukiwma became chief of Hotvela, a village founded by Traditionals to flee persecution and live according to Hopi custom. He was jailed repeatedly.


Finally, on September 23, 1895, the men left Alcatraz after almost nine months in prison. Six days later, they arrived at Fort Defiance in eastern Arizona. Captain Williams locked all 19 men in the guardhouse for a week, then freed all but 4: Lomahongiwma, Yukiwma, and two other Traditionals, who were kept as hostages, Williams wrote, and were “not to be released until it is apparent that the troubles at Oraiba [sic] are at an end.”

The conflict in Orayvi only worsened. Nonetheless, Lomahongiwma and Yukiwma were eventually released. They returned home to discover that others had stepped forward in their absence to continue the fight against the U.S. government. The battles over schools escalated, and the conflicts between the Progressives and the Traditionals intensified. Villagers quarreled, and sacred ceremonies were disrupted. U.S. authorities repeatedly hauled Lomahongiwma and Yukiwma off to jails across Arizona.

The ongoing incarcerations wore on Lomahongiwma. He finally agreed to “get the white man’s ways,” as Yukiwma later put it, “and let his children go to school.” “If we were willing,” Lomahongiwma explained, “we would not be ill-treated; we would not be kicked; we would not be punished.”

In contrast, Yukiwma never relented. In 1906, he became the chief of Hotvela, a village on Third Mesa founded by Traditionals who left Orayvi to dedicate themselves to the Hopi way of life. The night Yukiwma was selected chief, he told the people around him that the soldiers were sure to “come and take him prisoner or kill him.” No one should follow him, he said, “unless they were brave enough to stand the consequences.” Over 450 Traditionals accompanied Yukiwma five miles down a trail from Orayvi to the village.

Yukiwma proceeded to defy the U.S. government at every turn. He told villagers to keep their children home from school, tried to stop a school from being built within Hotvela’s borders, and fought the placement of a field health matron. For this last act, the latest in a succession of Indian agents locked Yukiwma in the local guardhouse and declared that he would never be set free. By then an old man, Yukiwma wasn’t troubled. “I shall go home sometime,” he quietly told his jailer. “Washington may send another Agent to replace you, or you may return to your own people, as all men do. Or you may be dismissed by the Government. These things have happened before. White men come to the Desert, and white men leave the Desert, but the Hopi remain.” The agent later called Yukiwma the “American Dalai Lama.”

Three years later, Yukiwma was released and walked the 40 miles to Hotvela, where the villagers welcomed him back as chief. He remained their leader until dying peacefully in 1929.

More than 1,000 people gathered at Alcatraz in the early morning of November 28, 2019, for an Unthanksgiving ceremony. The event commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Native American occupation of the island.
More than 1,000 people gathered at Alcatraz in the early morning of November 28, 2019, for an Unthanksgiving ceremony. The event commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Native American occupation of the island.


In the 125 years since the Hopis left Alcatraz, the island has become a focal point of Native American resistance.

On November 20, 1969, in the foggy predawn, 70 Indians of All Tribes—as they called themselves—sailed in three small boats to Alcatraz. They claimed the island for all Native Americans, painting “Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of Free Indian Land” in red letters on the water tower. That they were seizing a former prison island was not lost on the group. Over the next 19 months, Indians from across the country joined the occupation, protesting the government’s long history of mistreatment and motivated by the same goals as the Hopi Traditionals: a recognition of Indian self-determination and an end to cultural erasure.

The activists moved into buildings that once housed prison guards and wardens. They cooked and cleaned together, shared stories, sang and drummed and planned, together, for the future. The island, the leaders declared, would revert to Indian control—originally it had belonged to the Ohlone people—and become a spiritual, ecological, and historical gathering place for all Native Americans.

Ultimately, the vision wasn’t sustainable. In 1971, the last 15 activists were forcibly removed by U.S. marshals. But the Alcatraz occupation sparked the current era of Native American activism and persuaded President Richard Nixon to end the federal policy known as termination, which took away tribal lands, attempted to eliminate the sovereignty of Indian nations across the United States, and promoted the assimilation of American Indians into urban areas.

On Thanksgiving Day in 2019, more than a thousand people gathered on Alcatraz before sunrise to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1969 occupation. As sparks from a bonfire on the old military parade grounds flew across the concrete and up into the sky, as night turned to day, indigenous people from Hawaii, South Dakota, Mexico, and many points in between honored the veterans of the Alcatraz occupation.

The event, organized by the International Indian Treaty Council in San Francisco, also marked the 41st annual Unthanksgiving ceremony on Alcatraz. “We give thanks,” Andrea Carmen, IITC’s executive director, said, “to all those who have gone before us and who left us these sacred and cultural ways, no matter what they had to sacrifice.”

Koyiyumptewa from the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, who grew up in the village of Hotvela, expresses a similar sentiment to me: “As a young man, individuals from other villages teased me because Hotvela didn’t have running water, modern sanitation, or electricity, since these amenities had never been part of traditional Hopi life. This made me question my upbringing. Why did we lack these things that would make life easier? But as I grew older, I realized that being from Hotvela was rewarding. I’ve been able to witness ceremonies that have long since disappeared from other villages, and I appreciate the Hopi values passed down to me.… I’m grateful to the Traditionals who fought so hard and sacrificed so much to protect our good way of life. Hopiland is like no other place in the world.”

Laurie Ann Doyle is the author of World Gone Missing, winner of the Nautilus Award in fiction.  In the late 1970s, she lived in the village of Kykotsmovi on Third Mesa and worked at Second Mesa Day School.
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