Native American activist Beryle Contreras walks on at 81
One of the most important moments in modern American Indian history occurred in California in November 1969 when five activists jumped from a three-masted yacht named Monte Cristo in San Francisco Bay and swam to Alcatraz Island.
Within days after Richard Oakes, Jim Vaughn, Joe Bill, Ross Harden and Jerry Hatch made history by claiming the island by right of discovery, the occupation of Alcatraz began.
The infamous former federal prison site had been declared government surplus land after being closed in 1963 and the ensuing occupation lasted 19 months.
Among the brave and pioneering Indian people to live on the island during the Alcatraz occupation was Grand Tribal Elder Beryle LaRose Contreras.
She was born in Fort Duchesne, Utah, on July 29, 1935, and the beloved Tribal Elder walked on on May 19, 2017, at the age of 81. Her funeral was held in the Grand Ronde Tribal gym on Friday, May 26.
Almost 200 people gathered with the family for Beryle’s service and her cousin, John Sanchez, traveled to Oregon from the East Coast to perform the services at Beryle’s request.
“She was like a sister to my mother, but she was also like a sister to us,” Sanchez said.
Like many members of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Beryle and her family were relocated to California by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1956. She was 21 and living in Tillamook when the family was relocated.
The Tribe was terminated by the federal government in 1954 and all federal services ended two years later.
Sanchez said it was Beryle who made family members in his generation aware of their heritage and what it means.
“Beryle brought our political awareness as Native people to light for us when we were kids,” Sanchez said. “Back in the ’70s, Beryle was a very important part of starting the American Indian Movement Survival School, which taught us our political awareness, which taught us our traditional ways, which taught us who we are. It was very important for her to teach us that. It was very important for her to fight for our rights. That’s what I remember about Beryle, but I also remember her being my sister.”
Sanchez said that during the late ’60s and early ’70s, Beryle was politically active regarding Native American civil rights.
“She fought for that all the time,” Sanchez said. “As long as I can remember that was her main thing was to make sure that we knew who we were. She wanted to make sure that we knew that we were Native people and to be proud of who we were.”
Sanchez said Beryle was admired for having her children with her on Alcatraz Island during the occupation.
“That’s the way she was,” Sanchez said. “They (Beryle and others who also were politically active in support of Native American rights) took us from young people and made sure that we learned our way. I don’t think a lot of us would be here today if she hadn’t done that.”
Sanchez said he and members of their large family were always impressed by Beryle’s friends and the people she hung around with back in the day. Among those friends were Native American activist legends Richard and Annie Oakes (Richard was one of the original organizers of the Alcatraz occupation), John Trudell, Dennis Banks and Wilma Mankiller.
Mankiller became the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and one of the most powerful Indian women in American history.
“It was good being around Beryle because you always met a movie star or someone like that,” Sanchez said. “That’s what I’m doing here. She always believed in me. She always believed in all of us. She planted that seed inside of us and said, ‘Let the seed grow.’ She always did the best she could.”
Daughter Christine Contreras said her mother was strong and that she loved to dance with her children when they were younger.
“The strength of an Indian woman cannot be compromised,” Christine said. “My mom was a great friend. I know my mom loved us. She loved to dance. She loved to sing. She loved to go to powwows. She was a great woman.”
Christine paused for moment to control her emotions.
“Thank you for all the dances,” Christine added.
Daughter Kimberly read a poem called “I Am Indian Woman” and daughter Kalene lightened the mood when she took her turn at the microphone.
“I was mom’s favorite,” Kalene said and everyone in the audience laughed.
Beryle is survived by her children – Kerma Contreras of San Francisco, Denise Lamkin of Beaverton, Christine Contreras of Grand Ronde, Kevin Contreras of Sheridan, Kalene Contreras of Somes Bar, Calif., and Kimberly Brien of Grand Ronde, and two brothers, Jack Langley of Warm Springs and Leonard Langley of Tillamook.
Beryle’s daughter Kateri Contreras Atanacio walked on in February of this year. She also leaves 15 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren and many nieces, nephews and cousins.
Beryle was the daughter of Roy Norman Langley and Delia LaRose Langley. Roy was a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and Delia was a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe. Roy’s parents were Allen Langley and Alice Quenelle.
Beryle moved to Grand Ronde with her family when she was 5 years old. The family moved to Tillamook after the Tribe was terminated in 1954 and they were eventually relocated to San Francisco.
While living in California, Beryle attended beauty college and then San Francisco State University where she took courses in Native American Studies.
Beryle met her husband, Angel Contreras, in California and they were married for 20 years.
Over the years, Beryle worked at the American Indian Center, was active in the American Indian Movement, managed a home for mentally ill adults and cared for her father after he was no longer able to care for himself.