Last night, my sister asked me if I wanted to go to the Indigenous People’s Sunrise Ceremony this morning at Alcatraz. She said it would be pretty early, with ferries leaving after 4am. Why not, I thought. I didn’t do the math about when I’d have to get up and drive until later, but even when I did that, I figured it would be a cool experience to check out at least once.
I had heard of this event before. Every year on Thanksgiving, many indigenous groups come together and commemorate the occupation of Alcatraz in 1967-1971 and to honor their people in general. They’ve been doing this for 39 years. I never actually thought about going though until my sister asked me but I’m really glad I did. (Just in case you may not know, Alcatraz is a former island prison in the San Francisco Bay.)
By the time it was 5am, we were already on a ferry heading to the island after standing in a massive line to board. Many, many people were in line with us so multiple ferries were going to head over. I was surprised by the number of people, including myself, who seemed awake and human-like so early in the morning.
On the island, we joined a growing group of people that circled the ceremonies. Representatives from different groups spoke, with performances interspersed throughout. They asked that we not photograph specific native dances as they are sacred so I didn’t take any pictures of the actual performances. I did take a few pictures though of the crowd and of the lighthouse, which I got obsessed with as the sun was rising.
I enjoyed the performances and the people who spoke made me reflect about all the information I was told when I was little. After I grew up, I looked back with disdain at that time in elementary school where we reenacted the original Thanksgiving with some of us dressing up as pilgrims while others dressed up as Indians and we all ate together. Never mind the fact that we never had a traditional thanksgiving meal in my family’s home so the concept of something like cornbread went over my head, but I felt duped. I mean, we were fed so much BS as kids, that everything was all hunky dory between the pilgrims and the natives that were already on this land. Back in elementary school, we even had Columbus Day off.*
When one of the speakers mentioned the 49ers as one more episode of oppression of the indigenous people, I had another reason to look back at the stuff we did in elementary school as an episode of ignorance. The 49ers refer to the people that flooded the San Francisco Bay Area during the Gold Rush in 1849. In the 4th grade, we had a whole unit on the Gold Rush, even having someone from a mill come and show us how people panned for gold. All the kids in the class tried it. I didn’t make the connection until today about what the sudden influx of people to the Bay Area during the Gold Rush meant for the Native Americans that already populated the land here in California. Besides the fact that people were taking their land, the Native Americans also starved as the habitats for the game they ate were destroyed by gold prospecting. That and many got sick from all the illnesses that were introduced into their population, with Wikipedia stating that 80-90% of the population died just from that.
Eventually, the sun rose completely and the event ended with one final performance with about 200 people, with two drummers providing the music. The dancers included the young, old, men, and women. How cool is it that the traditions are still being passed down, despite all that the Native American populations went through.
As we all piled back into the ferries (the line to get back on pretty much circled the island), my sister and I both agreed that it was a good event. We need to be reminded sometimes of the atrocities that have occurred on the land that we call home and try to speak out when we see similar injustices happening around the world (one speaker talked of the occupation of Palestine – another topic that it is our duty to be informed about). And, the fact that the event was on Alcatraz, is a reminder that the place is so much more than just a former prison.
If this event sounds interesting to any of you all, try to check it out next time if you can. They said that this was the largest turnout ever for the sunrise ceremony. Maybe there is more awareness of this event now, probably due to social media, so there may be even more people to keep you company in next year’s line to board the ferries to witness the Indigenous People’s Sunrise Ceremony on Alcatraz island.
*Please do yourself a favor and read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. He covers Columbus in the very first chapter and to read about what Columbus thought of the Native Americans is just so heartbreaking. The book is a great read and you will make up for all the stuff you didn’t learn back when you were in school. By the way, I really liked my elementary school teachers. I mean them no disrespect.