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"Unthanksgiving" on Alcatraz

Jeremy Dalmas
Maori people in the middle of the circle at the Indigenous People's Annual Thanksgiving Sunrise Gathering.

Every year since 1975 the Indigenous People’s Sunrise Ceremony has taken place on Alcatraz Island on Columbus Day and Thanksgiving Day. Native Americans of many tribes attend the ceremony to commemorate the 1969 protest when the Alcatraz Red Power Movement occupied the island. They stayed there for 18 months, until they were removed by federal marshalls in 1971.It’s four in the morning on Thanksgiving day, and the ferry bound for Alcatraz is packed.

We’re crossing the bay to take part in the Indigenous Peoples’ Annual Thanksgiving Sunrise Gathering. More than four thousand people will make this journey today.

On the lower deck, I find two men singing and playing clappers. They’re bundled up in big jackets. Wicahpiluta Candelaria is here with his family.

“I'm Rumsen Ohlone from the Bay Area and Mescalero Apache from New Mexico. I live in the East Bay in the village of Huchian — also known as Oakland. We were singing traditional California-style clapper stick songs and that song we just sang was for the bears that are dancing in the night”

It’s still dark when we reach the island — people wrap themselves in blankets against the cold. At the docks there are greeters welcoming everyone to the island.

“Good morning everybody, welcome to Ohlone land! You’re out here near the village of Yelamu.”

Yelamu is the name of the tribe that is indigenous to the city of San Francisco.

People have been coming here every year since 1974 to celebrate native culture and to have an alternative to traditional Thanksgiving. But they also come to celebrate the island’s role in the birth of the American Indian Movement - that’s the name of Native American civil rights movement. American Indians occupied Alcatraz three times in the 1960s - most notably for 19 months starting in November of 1969. They said that a 19th century treaty allowed all unused federal land to be returned to the Native Americans. Since the prison had been recently closed, they argued they had legal rights to the island

“This is not a photo opportunity. This is Native American church,” says an announcement over the loudspeakers.

Up the hill from the docks, on a large ledge overlooking the Bay Bridge and the San Francisco skyline, hundreds gather in a circle around a large bonfire. Inside the circle there are speeches, prayers, and performances from many different groups. All Nations Drum begins an honor dance for veterans of the Occupation of Alcatraz.

Ronnie Almodovar is leaning off to the side of the circle. He goes by Talks.

“That's my native name - Talks”

He was here during the original occupation.

“Yes yes, I was 14 years old. We got shanghaied by an uncle. We thought we were going to the liquor store. He got on the freeway and we ended up here. We were stuck here — they had boats running back and forth.”

He stayed here for three months.

Credit Jeremy Dalmas
Ferry Terminal on Alcatraz Island

“On the front we had in big red letters — it said 'Return Surplus Lands Back To Indians.’ And when you drive up on the boat it was the first thing you saw, man.”

Some of the graffiti is still up. As you dock at the island it says ‘Indians Welcome’. He says that they slept in the prison cells that had been abandoned after the prison closed in 1963.

“Where else were we going to sleep? They had mattresses, blankets. We had bonfires out here man. From the city coming in you could see the bonfire out here.”

That was more than 40 years ago, but it still gets to him.

“It was a part of history that I never thought I would be a part of! Don’t get me wrong, but it makes me feel important just to be a part of it.”

Near the bonfire, a group of Aztec dancers gather. While all amateur recording is discouraged - no one at all is allowed to record this prayer. After it’s over, I talk to one of the dancers, Karen Marin.

“When we go in there what we're doing is praying. I feel like a lot of people don't understand that. It's not just jumping around and turning and squatting.”

Marin lives in San Leandro. She’s been coming here with her family for 15 years. All the dancers wear different things depending on what they want to represent in the dance.

“Every thing has it's own little meaning. My mom was wearing skulls. We've been going through a cancer battle with my brother so it's her way of praying for him and asking for healing. It's a medicine and a lot of people that come here take it as a medicine.”

As more ferries arrive at the dock, the circle swells to thousands of people. Sampson Wolfe set up a tipi off to the side of the circle.

“I'm an enrolled member of the Muscogee Nation.”

Like a lot of people here, he is not a fan of how Americans typically celebrate Thanksgiving.

“This is really an unthanksgiving for us because, I don’t know if you heard today, but they're celebrating the slaughter of a tribe of people.”

He didn’t get to sleep last night, but it’s well worth it for him.

Credit Jeremy Dalmas

“People from all walks of life come here. These nice ladies from Hawaii gave me this beautiful lei and they sang here, sometimes we have monks here from Japan, Maori dancers and singers, the Mochicas, a lot of local tribes, and today we had black people representing Black Lives Matter. This has evolved into a multicultural event and it's really awesome. Did you like it? Did you have a good time? Me too!” Wolfe begins to laugh.

As the sun starts rising over the Bay Bridge people start warming up. In the middle of the circle the emcee gets on the microphone.

“We need a song to welcome the sun so we can all acknowledge another day that grandfather sun is coming.”

Everyone faces the glowing horizon as another song begins.

At 9am everyone has to leave the island. Tomorrow Alcatraz will fill up with thousands of tourists. But the first thing they’ll see as they come off the ferry is the giant red graffiti left over from the occupation.

This story originally aired in December of 2015 as part of our Audiograph series, a radio project mapping the Bay Area’s sonic signature. Audiograph tells the story of where you live and the people who live there with you.  

This year the commemoration will be held on Thursday, November 22. It is currently organized by the International Indian Treaty Council and American Indian Contemporary Arts.