Indigenous Peoples’ Thanksgiving Sunrise Ceremony on Alcatraz Island

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View of San Francisco skyline from Indigenous Sunrise Ceremony on Alcatraz Island

View of San Francisco skyline from Indigenous Sunrise Ceremony on Alcatraz Island

SAN FRANCISCO – On Thursday morning, November 28, on a seemingly windless chilly morning and a beautiful crescent moon, and clear skies just before sunrise, San Francisco Bay area American Indians and their allies set out for Alcatraz Island for the annual traditional sunrise ceremony.

Organized by the International Indian Treaty Council, the event proved to be highly successful with some 3,500 people in attendance and in unison.

The opening prayer and welcome was given by Anne Marie Sayers (Ohlone Nation) and Director of Indian Canyon Ohlone Educational Center, and Pomo dancers led by Doug Duncan presented us with an opening dance and prayer.

Radley Davis of the Iss Awi/Pitt River Nation and a board member of International Indian Treaty Council spoke as did Andrea Carmen, executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council. Because of the closing of all Federal parks earlier in October, the traditional Indigenous Peoples Day gathering did not occur. As a result at least 3500 people attended the Thanksgiving Day event.

“As we gather today to celebrate, we do not celebrate the re-write of history that has become Thanksgiving. We celebrate our survival as indigenous people. In reality, on this day so long ago, 700 men, women and children of the Pequot Nation were slaughtered during their sacred Green Corn ceremonies by Pilgrims they had saved during the winter months with their own food,” proclaimed Andrea Carmen. “I want to thank the many heroes and young people—who are now parents and grandparents—who had the courage to occupy this island. We honor you. That action you participated in took us all the way to the United Nations where we finally got the recognition of our rights and treaties. I want our young children to realize what a great part of history you are now participating in. We are here to dedicate our lives to this traditional Native way of life,” Carmen continued.

Photo Credit: LaNada War Jack

Photo Credit: LaNada War Jack

Many youth also spent the night before on Alcatraz learning to build and keep the fire for the ceremony the next day. They were taught by Eloi Martinez, a veteran of the original occupation of Alcatraz.  Other Alcatraz veteran’s that were honored included Madonna Thunderheart, LaNada War Jacket, Chris Longoria, Lenny Foster, Bill Means, Doug Duncan, and Fred Short.

“I come here this year for all those original occupiers who cannot get here. Many have passed on to the spirit world, or are elders and cannot make it. At the time I was asked to come to Alcatraz, we were occupying Mt. Rushmore. A year after the original occupation of Alcatraz, only 150 were left on the island, and they needed others to come and help. It was the first time I really understood the word ‘freedom.’ We had to take care of ourselves completely, with no outside help at all. I have been in the struggle ever since,” said Madonna Thunderheart.

All of the original occupiers of Alcatraz were called into the circle and were sung an honor song by All Nations drummers and singers.

For the first time in the history of the Alcatraz remembrance ceremony, a deer dancer performed from the Yaqui Nation which must span the border between Arizona and Mexico. This dance is rarely seen outside of the Yaqui Nation. The deer is a sacred animal of the Yaqui people whose traditional lands are the Sonoran desert. When the deer is dancing, he is calling to the Earth itself, asking her to bring life up. The deer hears the vibrations of the earth. It is said when he dances, he is affirming life, and re-generating life for the people. The Yaqui Nation were the last indigenous people to sign a treaty ending war with Mexico in 1933. As they signed the treaty, they were surrounded by the Mexican military and sent to the Yucatan peninsula and held in forts. Those that survived (only about 100 or so) had to walk hundreds of miles back to their homeland in the Sonoran desert.

Many Pomo dancers and their families also performed as did approximately 50 Aztec dancers.

Lenny Foster, spiritual advisor to Leonard Peltier offered a prayer in Dine, and asked us all to pray for Leonard’s release.

“The birds are happy today, they are happy, and I ask you all to pray for Leonard Peltier, so he can be released and enjoy his many relatives that love him and miss him. We have been and are mounting a vigorous campaign for his release, and ask you all for your prayers and continuing support,” said Foster.

It was truly a very special sunrise ceremony, and an honor for all who organized and all who attended.

Nanette Bradley Deetz is of Dakota, Cherokee and German descent. She is a poet, writer, educator and sometimes musician whose poetry appears in several anthologies. The most current is “Turning a Train of Thought Upside Down,” published by Scarlett Tanager Press; “Turtle Island to Abya Yala, A Love Anthology of Art and Poetry by Native American and Latina Women,” Malinalli Press, and “Alameda Island Theme Poems, 2004,2005 & 2006.” She combines poetry and music in her band, Redbird Giving which performs at many Bay Area native and non-native venues. She is a correspondent for the Alameda Journal, Alameda Sun and Native News Online.

Sykline Photo Credit: Christopher Burquez

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