When Richard Oake’s 12-year-old daughter Yvonne died after falling from the guards’ quarters of Alcatraz prison on Jan. 5, 1970, a dark cloud loomed over the island and the occupation that began on Nov. 20, 1969.
But the movement that Oakes and other Native activists helped spark has had a lasting impact that can still be felt to this day—even 50 years later.
For the past 50 years the historic 19-month long occupation of Alcatraz—which at one point numbered in the hundreds—has been the subject of great dispute. But what is undeniable is how it has shaped the Native perspective for generations to come.
On Nov. 19, just one day before the 50th anniversary, the San Francisco Public Library and the California Historical Society presented “Untold and Intimate Stories of the Alcatraz Occupation,” where original occupiers revealed first-hand stories of their experiences on the island.
“I didn’t know it at the time,” said Dr. LaNada War Jack (then known as LaNada Means), a leader/original occupier and member of the Shoshone Bannock Tribes. “So it was just doing what you think you have to do. If no one’s gonna say it, if no one’s gonna do it, then you have to do it. You have to stand up and do your part.”
Downstairs in the main public library, a packed crowd gathered in the Latinos/Hispanic Rooms to hear from the generation that took Alcatraz in 1969. Black and white photographs by Ilka Hartmann—displayed on presentation boards inside the room—served as a window back in time to the Alcatraz Occupation. From smiling children to important figures, all played an integral part of the movement that defined ethnic studies in higher education.
High school students sat at tables and on the floor, while upfront were the panel of activists who stored food for the days ahead of the occupation, creating a whole community on the abandoned Alcatraz.
“We just conditioned ourselves to living out there and was able to do it,” said the 74-year-old War Jack.
Nestled in the corner of the room alongside her family, War Jack was promoting and signing her new book, “Native Resistance: An Intergenerational Fight for Survival and Life.” The book is a recollection of War Jack’s insights on the occupation, which have historically been bent and transformed to serve false narratives. As the first Native American student at U.C. Berkeley, War Jack co-organized the now infamous movement. Till this day, she misses the breeze of the cool wind on her face when she was there on the island.
The protest lasted 19-months, with some occupants staying for several months at a time. The Native activists united under the banner Indians of All Tribes, and took the island citing the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. The treaty allowed Natives to commandeer abandoned federal land such as Alcatraz. War Jack, then 24, joined the boats at night that were used to take them to the island.
Support from rogue sailers helped activists reach the island. Mary Crowley was only 19 when she decided to sail Natives without an engine on her boat to Alcatraz. She, along with others, braved the choppy waters to assist the activists who had longed searched for justice. The fear of being jailed or blocked by Coast Guard involvement wasn’t enough to deter their mission.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” said Crowley, who is now executive director of Project Kaisei, an ocean cleanup initiative. “I knew how to sail I had access to a boat and I felt very much behind the movement. And then when I met all of the people inbound, I was very moved by everyone’s commitment.”
The non-Native Crowley, now 69, was part of the movement and continued to sail more people to the island and supported the idea of a cultural center and university for Native people on Alcatraz. Five decades later, Crowley and many others still reunite on the island and reflect on their quest for cultural freedom human rights. The current geopolitical climate in the United States seems to be providing a greater platform to speak out against the injustices committed back then.
“I think as people we should all stand up for the things we believe in,” Crowley said. “And one of the most important things is everybody treating each other kindly and with love.”
Adults weren’t the only occupants of the island and the movement. Children were brought along as well. The many children that played and explored Alcatraz were forever changed by the experience.
Blair and William Ryan—children of Barbara Hajo who was a student at UCLA in 1970—didn’t know their lives would be uprooted and resettled to the overcast and drizzly island of Alcatraz. They rode shotgun in a ferry bearing clothes, food and a donated generator to help uphold the occupation.
A 7-year-old William Ryan and his then 9-year-old brother Blair were some of the children that witnessed their parents’ activism. They, along with the rest of the children, searched the island, walking through each prison cell, playing on the beach during low tide and discovering a goat in some bushes. One of their misadventures was at the top of the light house where Blair kicked a gallon of red paint down and almost fell off. Today, the splatter of paint can still be seen.
“It really makes me just really thoughtful and introspective,” said William Ryan (Seminole/Chickasaw). “And I just think about the whole experience surviving it. The surreal nature of it.”
He and the rest of the children were unaware of the political motivation behind the occupation, but for them Alcatraz was their backyard. They looked after each other and scavenged food storage for cans of fruit cocktail and boxes of Apple Jacks cereal. As an adult, William has studied archives of the demonstration and found pictures of when he was a child there. Now a superintendent for a large general contractor, William, 56, feels proud of being part of the movement.
It was a movement that continued despite the tragic death of Yvonne Oakes.
“It was really sad, but we were there and we had to continue the occupation,” War Jack said.
When the occupation came to an end, only 15 people remained; they were escorted off the island by the FBI, federal marshals and the Coast Guard according to PBS.
“A lot of people thought they just ended there, but it didn’t end because a lot of people left there and they went and did actions elsewhere,” said Eloy Martinez (Southern Ute).
Martinez, 79, is wearing a black bomber jacket that read “occupied” in white above an eagle and a walking stick in hand. He remembers his time on Alcatraz clearly. It’s a period that still resonates with him and other occupiers.
Surrounded by the photographs that captured their determination to change the system, the voices and stories of the original occupiers were heard. Today, they embody the movement that changed the way Natives view themselves and their culture and continue to remind us that the fight for justice is not over.
“We got people now that’ll let us get that story out. Before we didn’t,” Martinez said. “Once you know your identity, they can’t take it from you never again.”