.Feast of the Survivors

At Alcatraz Island's Thanksgiving Day, the native spirit lives on.

Do you know where you’ll be at 6:59 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning, as the sun rises over the eastern hills and paints the bay pink? Sure, you could be in bed, visions of turkey and stuffing dancing through your head. But if you crave spiritual nourishment to start the day, join like-minded folks for the Sunrise Gathering on Alcatraz Island, organized by the International Indian Treaty Council.
It’s both a rallying point for Indians of the Bay Area and beyond, and a moment when others can express their solidarity with native people. “It’s a gathering to offer thanks, in our way, for the survival of our indigenous nations on this hemisphere in the face of genocide,” says Andrea Carmen, the treaty council’s executive director. The morning’s events include dances by both California Pomo Indians and Aztecs, and a prayer to the rising sun as the first rays hit the island.

Brave souls have been congregating at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco for the early morning boat trip for over thirty years now. In its earlier years, the event was called Unthanksgiving Day and had a more confrontational tenor. It was an explicit rebuttal, Carmen says, to the grade-school construction-paper picture of Pilgrims and Indians sitting down together and happily swapping maize recipes. “That’s not what happened, and we know it,” she says. Over time, the organizers have adopted a more positive tone. “The message of Unthanksgiving doesn’t convey the true feeling of indigenous people,” Carmen says, “which is to give thanks every day for our survival, and the survival of the natural world, and the courage of our ancestors who fought and struggled and resisted to keep our culture alive for us.”

One of those struggles began in 1969 on Alcatraz’ rocky ground. On a November morning of that year, a group of Indian students set up camp on the deserted prison island. They claimed Alcatraz under an obscure 1868 treaty, which said that any land declared surplus by the federal government reverted to Indian ownership. Thus began an eighteen-month occupation of the island that galvanized the emerging American Indian movement. In the years that followed, inspired protesters occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and joined the Longest Walk, a trek from San Francisco to Washington, DC.

Speakers at the sunrise gathering always recognize veterans of the Alcatraz Island occupation, but the event is more than a look back, says Pat Bellanger, who will come from Minnesota to attend. Bellanger, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement, says she could tell stories for hours about the exciting early days of the movement, but comes to the gathering to talk about the pressing issues of today. “It’s more than a nice memory,” she says. “We’re still fighting for our land, and to keep our culture alive. It’s a fight that goes on.”

The event often fills up, but you can avoid the 4 a.m. line at the ticket office by buying ferry tickets in advance from BlueandGoldFleet.com or 415-705-5555. The ferry ride costs $12, while the event itself is free. The public is also invited to a free potluck feast afterwards, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Oakland InterTribal Friendship House, 523 International Boulevard. Turkey will be served.


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