Nov 23, 2022 - Things to Do

Remembering the Indigenous occupation of Alcatraz

Indigenous peoples' sunrise ceremony on Alcatraz

People gather at Alcatraz Island for the Sunrise Ceremony (or Un-Thanksgiving Day) on Nov. 28, 2019, in San Francisco. Photo: Liu Guanguan/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

The International Indian Treaty Council is hosting its annual Sunrise Gathering on Alcatraz Island, a.k.a. "The Rock," Thursday in commemoration of the 1969-1971 occupation by the Indians of All Tribes.

What's happening: The event, first held in 1975, is designed to provide a space for healing and giving thanks for the survival, resistance and resilience of Indigenous peoples in California.

  • The program will feature Pomo and Aztec dancers, prayer, music by the All Nations Drum group and other cultural activities.

The big picture: Thanksgiving is typically a day of mourning for Indigenous peoples, and "carries this very painful history," Morning Star Gali, the community liaison coordinator for the IITC, told Axios.

  • Some Indigenous activists, scholars and artists use the term "Thankstaking" to describe an alternative history around the holiday with a focus on land theft and Indigenous voices.

Context: Richard Oakes, alongside other Indigenous activists, began a 19-month occupation of Alcatraz in November 1969, after a fire destroyed San Francisco's American Indian Center.

  • About 100 Indigenous activists occupied the island. They elected officials, established a school, housing, daycare and a new American Indian center.
  • Indigenous activists used the occupation to speak out against the U.S. government's Termination Policy and other challenges they were facing.
  • In June 1971, armed federal law enforcement members arrived at the island to end the occupation.

What they're saying: The occupation, Gali said, is known as "the spark that lit the flame of Indigenous resistance."

  • "The reclaiming of Alcatraz … I call it one of the original 'land back' movements," she said. "Alcatraz represented the lack of housing, the lack of education, the lack of having access to healthy food and clean water. None of that existed on the island."

Of note: Land back efforts by Indigenous people aim to reclaim stolen land.

  • And for those of us who live in San Francisco, we're on unceded land of the Ramaytush Ohlone people.

Between the lines: Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and executive director of the Indigenous advocacy group IllumiNative, told Axios more people are learning about Alcatraz because Indigenous youth are seeking out this history.

  • "We definitely have a long way to go, but this is no longer something you only learn about in a Native American Studies class."

What's next: The Sunrise Gathering is tomorrow, 5:30-8am, on Alcatraz. You can buy tickets online or at the Pier 33 ticket booth before the event.

  • Boats depart from Pier 33 about every 15 minutes, from 4:15 to 6am.

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