By MARY UYEMATSU KAO
This past November 2021, The Rafu featured a photograph of the 52nd commemoration of the Occupation of Alcatraz 1969 (AZ69). My friend Shoshana Arai was in the photo, so I cut it out and sent it to her. She emailed me the original Gidra article about the group of Japanese Americans who made significant solidarity actions to support the Indians of All Tribes takeover of Alcatraz Island.
In March 1970, Gidra published “Asians Make Waves to Alcatraz…” written by Marlene Tanioka and Aileen Yamaguchi. What follows are excerpts from the article:
“On Feb. 14, about 20 of us of various ages, 15 to 60, sailed to Alcatraz to personalize the Japanese American Citizens League Committee to Repeal Title II’s sincere concern for our Third World brothers.
“Japanese Americans Boat the Rock
“. . .George Uehara, chairman of the Alcatraz Project, Ko Ijichi, Joseph Morozumi, Steven and Greg Morozumi, Dennis Wong and Leroy Saunders arrived with many crates of fruits and vegetables. . . . While we were waiting for our fishing boat, the following supporters joined the already waiting group: Fumi Ukai, Ron Kobata, Glenn Watanabe, Mary Ann Takagi, Rev. Lloyd Wake, Doreen Uyehara, Mitsue Yashima, Sara Takashige, Isao Tanaka, and several others.
“The group was warmly welcomed by Grace Thorpe, Young Raymond, Marilyn Miracle and Stella Leach and given a tour of their living quarters and the relics of the former prison that made Alcatraz famous. The visitors learned of the history of broken treaties, and how the Indians who fought against California joining the union in the mid-1800s were ‘thrown into Spanish dungeons, deep under Alcatraz.’
“The visitors met people of all ages from tribes who came together for the first time: Sioux, Piute, Apache, Mohawk and Navaho. They also talked with Indian Vietnam veterans who ‘were now returning to fight their own real struggle.’’’
Alcatraz federal prison was shut down in March 1963 — deemed too expensive to keep operating. Alcatraz aka “the Rock” (not the movie star Duane Johnson) was taken over by almost 100 Indians of All Tribes (IOAT) on Nov. 20, 1969 — just 8 months after the San Francisco State Strike ended.
Richard Oakes (Akwesasne Mohawk) was involved in the founding of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State and led the initial occupation. Oakes told news media the occupation “offered to buy it [Alcatraz] for ‘$24 in glass beads and red cloth’ — the same price that Indians supposedly received for the island of Manhattan.”
At the high point of the occupation, close to 600 indigenous peoples had joined, including many college students. Oakes and his family left in early January 1970 after his step-daughter died from a fall in a prison stairwell.
Lasting 19 months, the occupation was ended after two oil tankers collided in San Francisco Bay in January 1971. Even though it was acknowledged that Alcatraz’s lack of lighthouse or foghorn had nothing to do with the collision, “it was enough to push the federal government into action. On June 10, 1971, armed federal marshals, FBI agents, and special forces police swarmed the island and removed 5 women, 4 children, and 6 unarmed Indian men. The occupation was over.”
Tragically, Richard Oakes was assassinated in 1972 by a local YMCA security guard while organizing for Indian rights in Northern California. His murderer was acquitted.
AZ69 was the beginning of Indians of All Tribes fight for self-determination of Indigenous nations and peoples in the U.S. The occupation’s goals were to build a school, an Indigenous culture center, and a museum on the Rock. Although the occupation got starved out by the government, many AZ69 veterans went on to stage more occupations across the country.
During AZ69, President Nixon said: “The time has come…for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions.”
AZ69 Living Legacy — Nancy Ukai
Nancy Ukai was 15 years old when she went with her mother, Fumi Ukai, on the 1970 supply and support trip for the occupation. Fumi is pictured in the Gidra article as Grace Thorpe gives a tour inside the deserted prison cell block. Nancy participated in the 50th anniversary of the AZ 69, and again this last November for the 52nd anniversary.
BTW (by the way) — Nancy Ukai became the project director for “50 Objects/Stories — The Japanese American Incarceration” (https://50objects.org) after giving impetus to the social media protest of the Rago auction of camp artifacts in 2015. She found the map in the National Archives that locates where James Hatsuaki Wakasa was shot and killed by a Topaz guard in 1943. A memorial was erected where Wakasa was shot — an act of defiance by his Issei friends against camp authorities, who quickly covered up this indiscriminate murder.
In 2020, archeologists Jeff Burton and Mary Farrell used the map to rediscover the buried memorial but nine months later, the Topaz Museum Board of Directors desecrated the site by using a forklift to dig out the monument. Nancy is part of the Wakasa Memorial Committee, which is working to include survivor and descendant voices in the future treatment of the monument. (https://wakasamemorial.org)
Nancy emailed me this piece she wrote after attending AZ69’s 50th anniversary (2019), which was celebrated by over 300 people from all over the country.
“I had wanted to go to Alcatraz on Nov. 20 to honor the 50th anniversary of the Indigenous Occupation and also in remembrance of my mom. We had gone to Alcatraz in 1970 with her friend, Mary Ann Takagi, and a group of Japanese Americans to deliver supplies to the Rock in support of the occupiers. I was 15 and the youngest of the group.
“We crossed the bay in a small boat, taking canned goods, water and clothing. It was cold and foggy and the cell blocks were frigid. But the people who greeted us were warm and welcoming. Children were playing on the prison grounds. It felt strange to walk freely in a prison.
“What are the chances that I could go now? . . . I met Eloy Martinez, who was an original occupier. . . . I showed him a copy of a 1970 Gidra activist newspaper. . . which had an article about the Japanese American supply trip. . . . He looked at the photos and said that the supply boat was purchased using funds donated by Creedence Clearwater Revival. On the spot he invited me to join a ‘veterans’ boat to Alcatraz. . . .
“We were on the first boat to the island with National Park Service staff, photographers and former occupiers who had come from all over the country. We walked up to the New Industries building, which had formerly been used for doing prison laundry and as a sewing factory.
“Inside, former occupiers were reuniting, many for the first time in 50 years. Speakers talked to a rapt group of perhaps 300. My favorite speaker was the son of LaNada Means, who simply said the names of each of his relatives who was present in the room, perhaps nine or 10 people.
“Geneva, who came from South Dakota and was on the first boat to the island back in 1969, asked me to speak later, and show the Gidra article, before a crowd near the dock.
“As a member of Tsuru for Solidarity, a Japanese American activist group that takes paper cranes (tsuru) to present-day detention sites to protest the caging of children and detention of asylum seekers. . . . Tsuru for Solidarity had a physical presence that day, through the paper cranes that landed in yet another incarceration site.
“What a surprise to learn that also on the same Japanese American supply trip 50 years ago were two people who are active in Tsuru for Solidarity now: Rev. Ron Kobata and Kathy Kojimoto. Rev. Kobata, who was a Cal student at the time, helped Tsuru for Solidarity hold a local meeting of more than 100 people at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco. He spoke at our first action in 2019, in south Texas, at the barbed-wire fence of the Dilley detention site for migrant mothers and children.
“Kathy Kojimoto, who was a press liaison for the Texas action, also was on that boat. Her uncle, Isao Tanaka, took the photos for the Gidra article that I had carried to Alcatraz. Mr. Tanaka passed away at age 93 in San Francisco.
“I think I understand why the recitation of family names by LaNada Means’ son felt so meaningful. It was not a conventional speech. But it must please the ancestors to know who had gathered there to honor them. It also put out into the world the mysterious connections that we share, buried by time, but which are actually not that far below the surface.”
AZ69 52nd Commemoration, November 2021
During one of the regular tsuru-folding meetings of Tsuru for Solidarity last year, Nancy mentioned she was going to the 52nd reunion of AZ69. Immediately, Shoshana Arai, Akemi Yamane Ina, Emiko Omori, and Kimiko Marr were ready to take part. While the 52nd was not as large as the 50th, it was still a sizeable display of living legacies who inspire the continued struggles for self-determination of Indigenous peoples and nations.
Deb Halland attended, the first Native American to be named U.S. secretary of the interior. In a Zoom interview with Nancy, she excitedly reported: “Its indicative of how far we’ve come that she showed up on the day of the occupation anniversary. And on the very same day, you have to check this — the new director of National Park Service (NPS) was appointed, and he is Native American.” Nancy was off by one day — Nov. 19, 2021, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved Charles “Chuck” Sams III as the first Native American director of NPS.
Nancy recounted: “That Gidra was like a ticket. It’s a physical evidence of that time…and it’s a demonstration of Asian American solidarity. So people were excited, because they may or may not know who was actually supporting them at that time.”
At the 52nd, the Tsuru for Solidarity group were told that there are still plans in the works to build an Indigenous peoples’ cultural center at Alcatraz, which was one of the original demands of AZ69. An IOAT Committee member asked for Akemi Ina’s giant tsuru, and Nancy is donating the Gidra issue, to be housed at the future culture center.
Nancy’s comments looking back on AZ69 give some insight on what it means to be a living legacy: “What really impressed me back then was this whole thing was organized by ‘old people’ — who were doing this really cool stuff. It was important to have a presence there, and people liked that there were Asian Americans there. … Familial and activist ties keep intersecting on these different issues — women’s networks keep reseeding themselves. It’s kinda neat.”
After our Zoom, I texted one of Isao Tanaka’s photos from AZ69, asking if it was her. She texted back: “Omg! Yes! Never seen this before.”
Mary Uyematsu Kao is a retired photojournalist. She published her photography book “Rockin’ the Boat: Flashbacks of the 1970s Asian Movement” in June 2020. Comments and feedback are welcome at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.