Ya Ta Hey! Alcatraz, A documentary film by Walter Chappell and Blaine Ellis

On November 20th, 1969, seventy-nine American Indians, lead by activist Richard Oakes, sailed to Alcatraz Island and occupied the dilapidated former federal prison complex. Sighting the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which stipulated that any dis-used Federal lands should revert back to Native American control, occupiers claimed the island for the “Indians Of All Tribes”. At its height, the occupation of Alcatraz included over 700 individuals, including dozens of women and children.  On June 11th, 1971, nineteen months after the first occupiers arrived, Federal Marshals and FBI agents peacefully removed the last activists from the island.

In November of 1969 Blaine Ellis was living in a houseboat community on Richardson Bay, not far from the escalating events on Alcatraz. Ellis witnessed successful efforts by his neighbors to bring medical supplies, food, water and Indian activists to the occupied island, despite a US Coast Guard blockade. Recognizing the historical and political significance of the occupation, Ellis approached Walter Chappell about making a documentary film. That November the filmmakers received permission from occupation representatives to begin filming, and made their first of many trips to the island. The resulting film, ‘Ya Ta Hey Alcatraz!’, is an impressionistic documentary chronicling life and work on the occupied island.

Unique among contemporary records of American Indian activism from the time, ‘Ya Ta Hey’ depicts in sympathetic detail the efforts of Native American activists to bring attention and intention to the struggles and aspirations of their people.


Walter Chappell is an internationally recognized photographer whose evocative explorations of human form and landscape contributed to the elevation of 20th century still photography as a fine art. Chappell learned his craft under the apprenticeship of Minor White and as an assistant curator at the George Eastman House Museum in Rochester, NY. In addition to his work as a still photographer, Chappell was an experimental filmmaker. As such, Chappell assisted in editing and was credited as a “dramaturgical consultant” on Godfrey Reggio’s films Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi.
Chappell died in 2000 at the age of 75. A comprehensive retrospective of Chappell’s work, including the film ‘Ya Ta Hey Alcatraz!’, was presented  at the Fondazione  Fotografia, Modena, Italy.

Blaine Ellis is a fine art photographer whose photographs are in numerous public and private collections, including the Aaron Siskind Foundation Collection at the Rhode Island School of Design, The Museum Of Fine Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico and The Bibliotheque National de France. Ellis resides in San Francisco and Abiquiu, New Mexico.