Record Crowd of 5,000 Attend Annual Indigenous Peoples’ Sunrise Gathering on Alcatraz Island

Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony on Alcatraz Island. Native News Online photos by Christopher Burquez

Published November 24, 2017

SAN FRANCISCO — International Indian Treaty Council organized the annual Indigenous Peoples’ Sunrise Gathering on Alcatraz Island on Thursday, November 23, 2017. This year’s event was attended by nearly 5,000 people. This year’s ceremony was simulcast around the world, as well as live broadcast on KPFA and KPOO Native programs via radio. Radley Davis (Pitt River) offered a prayer, “Every day we give thanks to the sun, and ask that we have the ability to do good for all our ancestors. It’s now time to gather the medicine we need and honor the world we live in. We give thanks to all our ancestors for making it through all the devastation, murder, genocide, disconnection from land and relatives to give us strength today. Our struggles ahead are now very serious.”

Young powwow dancer performing

Executive Director of International Indian Treaty Council, Andrea Carmen (Yaqui) reminded everyone that we are here to reclaim our rightful places and to commemorate truth in ceremony.

“In 1637 the Governor of Massachusetts John Winthrop declared a day of celebration for the slaughter of hundreds of Pequot Indians; men, women, and children. But we are here to thank Creator for the beating of our hearts, that we still have life. In 1969 the original occupation of Alcatraz began, led by a young student at SF State Univ., Richard Oakes (Mohawk) along with many other brave and courageous students and their allies from many Indian tribes. In June of 1974 the International Indian Treaty Council was founded in Mobridge, South Dakota. I want to conclude by remembering the many contributions of the late professor and activist, Dr. Lehman Brightman who was our faculty advisor at the time, and encouraged me in 1975 to research the forced sterilization of so many of our Native women. He also introduced me to the late Bill Wahpepah. Dr. Brightman risked everything, his freedom, his home, and his family to shelter the late co-founder of AIM Dennis Banks, while he hid from authorities. My relatives, we have much to remember, and to be thankful for on this beautiful morning,” stated Carmen.

Morning Star Gali (Pitt River/Apache) served as the event Mistress of Ceremony and helped organize presenters and performers for the event.

Kanyon Sayers-Rood (Ohlone), daughter of Ann Marie Sayers of Indian Canyon opened the program with Grandmother’s song, and sang the Dolphin Song. Doug Duncan and the Pomo dancers from Round Valley, traveled from Northern California to perform their traditional dances and songs. Raul Chrisman from the Kumiyai tribe in San Diego brought his family of Bird Singers to perform their traditional bird songs and bird dances. During their performance, hundreds of sea gulls and other birds circled overhead.

Len Foster, Diné elder and spiritual adviser to Leonard Peltier.

Cody Blackbird (Dakota, Eastern Band Cherokee) noted flute player, performed several songs from his numerous cd’s during the ceremony. “It’s about evolution, not revolution,” he said. Laulani Teale and Liko Martin, two singer/songwriters from Hawaii who performed often during the struggles to keep telescopes off of Mauna Kea performed original music about the beauty of the land. LaNada War Jack, who was one of the original fourteen students to occupy Alcatraz in 1969, asked everyone assembled to face the rising sun and pray. “The sun is powerful, our prayers are carried on the light. We need to unite because it will take all of us to stop the current destruction of our Mother Earth and all life,” she said.

LaNada War Jack speaking. Left to right, Rochelle Diver (IITC), LaNada War Jack, Andrea Carmen (Exec. Dir. IITC), Cody Blackbird.

All 5,000 assembled turned to the sun and sent up powerful prayers together.

Tai Pelli, (Taino Indian) board member of IITC speaking about Puerto Rico

Tai Pelli, a board member of International Indian Treaty Council and a Taino Indian from Puerto Rico, spoke in her Taino language, Spanish, and translated into English. Ms. Pelli delivered three messages to all those in attendance; she asked those assembled to pray and make a call out to our ancestors, to remember the sacred fire within everyone, and then to realize we are all one with the universe. She spoke the truth about the situation in Puerto Rico, informing all that the information we receive from television, radio, and the current governor of Puerto Rico are all lies. The supposed number of deaths from the hurricane are much higher than reported, and that if a family member buries their dead it is against the law. FEMA also lied about the amount of food supposedly delivered to the people of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is still a colony of the United States, and as such is legally considered a “free associated state.”

Ms. Abby Abinanti, currently the chief justice of the Yurok Tribe also offered words of support. “Our Native values of goodness and kindness will always remain stronger than their laws. Our mission as indigenous peoples is to do good, be kind, and help one another. Do not sacrifice your values ever because your ancestors and your children are watching,” stated Judge Abinanti.

Judge Abinanti has begun one of the only programs on a California Indian reservation to use restorative justice and wellness concepts based on traditional cultural practices in order to  keep Indian people out of the state penal system.

Former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick was honored by AIM spiritual advisor Fred Short.

Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback with the San Francisco 49’ers football team, made a surprise appearance at the sunrise ceremony. He was honored by long time AIM activist and elder Fred Short and others in front of the sacred fire, and welcomed by the International Indian Treaty Council.

“He was not originally on the program, but just showed up in order to support us. I don’t believe he really wanted to speak, but did want to thank us. He is truly a sweet and humble man, and we are very thankful that he chose to join us here on Alcatraz,” said Executive Director of IITC Andrea Carmen.

“We’re all fighting for our freedom. What I take away from all the beauty I see here today, all the strength in everyone, is that we are all fighting for justice, for our freedom, and the fact that we are all doing this together only makes us stronger,” said Kaepernick.

Mohawk elder Tom Cook from Akwasasne of the Wolf Clan spoke eloquently during an interview for KPFA.

“Richard Oakes once said, ‘Alcatraz is not an island, it is an idea.’ I want to remember all the skills that he brought forth that were so inspirational to all of us. In New York we tried to take over Ellis Island, and it might have worked if we could have figured out how to do it as well as RIchard Oakes and the original folks out here did. It started with our tribe the Mohawk in 1945 when Hopi elder Thomas Banyacya sent a letter to our longhouse about the dangers of the ashes from the nuclear bomb. All through the 1950s these dangers increased. Then in 1968 we blockaded the bridge from our lands into Canada, and in 1970 Dennis Banks helped the Taos take back Blue Lake. In 1969 the Akwasasne News covered the Alcatraz occupation, and spent 36 days reporting from inside the conflict at Wounded Knee. All of the legal trials of our leadership really set the foundation for the next generations that I now witness gathered here today,” said Cook.

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.” Her most recent book is “Red Indian Road West: Native American Poetry from California” published by Scarlett Tanager Books. 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 and Native News Online. Deetz may be reached at

Doug Duncan and Susie Pinole entering circle with Round Valley California Indian dancers/singers to perform.

Fire keepers and drums.

Buddhist monks offering prayer.

Cody Blackbird (Dakota, Eastern Band Cherokee) and accompanist performing.

Hawaiian singer/songwriters Laulani Teale and Liko Martin.

Aztec dancers performing.


Nanette Bradley Deetz


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