Occupation of Alcatraz Island remembered

American Indians assemble at the 2009 Sunrise Gathering. The event commemorated the 40th anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz. RAMSEY EL-QARE / THE GUARDSMAN
American Indians assemble at the 2009 Sunrise Gathering. The event commemorated the 40th anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz. RAMSEY EL-QARE / THE GUARDSMAN

By Liska Koenig
Chief Copy Editor

Around 3,700 people gathered on Alcatraz Island for the Indigenous People Sunrise Ceremony on Thanksgiving to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the island’s occupation by American Indians from California and all over the United States.

The air was filled with the smell of sage, sweet grass and cedar as a diverse crowd, many of them American Indians, assembled around a fire on top of the hill at about 5 a.m. on Nov. 26.

Leaders of the American Indian community prayed to the sun, gave thanks to the creator and blessed the crowd. The also spoke about the important role Alcatraz sill plays for all indigenous people of the world, which indigenous people of the world.

On Nov. 20, 1969, 79 American Indians, among them students from San Francisco and Berkeley, landed on the island and began an annexation that lasted until June 11, 1971. Over these months, around 1500 people participated in the non-violent protest against the U.S. government’s treatment of American Indians, as well as the lack of enforcement to recognize legal treaties and tribal sovereignty.

“I’m sad to tell you, that the first Thanksgiving was proclaimed into law by the governor of the colony of Massachusetts Bay in 1637 not to celebrate a beautiful meal of the Indian people of that land sitting with the pilgrims,” said Andrea Carmen of the International Indian Treaty Council in her greeting to the crowd. “On this day, he declared a commemoration and a Thanksgiving of a massacre of 700 Pequot men, women and children. Unarmed, during their harvest festival, they were attacked by the settler military and slaughtered.”

Carmen said the American Indian Movement originated from the spark lit during the occupation of Alcatraz. While the struggle to improve conditions is still continuing, the American Indian Movement has resulted in the IITC, the organization that works for the rights and recognition of indigenous people all over the world.

Veterans and relatives of the original group were honored with a song and dance by the All Nations Singers. After dancing around the fire, all honorees were given event posters and abalone shells to commemorate the occasion.

“We want this place listed on the sacred sites of North America,” said Lakota tribe member Bill Means. “Our people sacrificed a lot to come here, to give a message to the U.S. government that the Indian people have a right to be who they are, that John Wayne didn’t kill us all.”

AIM co-founder Clyde Bellecourt addressed the crowd with a call to action.

“People ask me everywhere I go, non-Indians, ‘Indians, how can I join this movement?’” he said. “And I tell them, in the power invested in me as part of former national director of the American Indian Movement, I draft every one of you and every one of you is part of this great movement today.”

The gathering concluded at sunrise with a ceremonial dance and chanting by the Aztec Dancers, who wore ceremonial attire.

Stephanie Oliver, a ranger with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area Services, was on hand to assist people at the Alcatraz ferry landing.

“History would die if we don’t live it and don’t keep the story,” she said.

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