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A Thanksgiving bonfire at dawn: celebrating Native American resistance on Alcatraz | US news

Category: Political Protests,Politics

At 4.30am on Thanksgiving morning, the sun had yet to rise over Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. Yet more than 5,000 people were gathered in a hushed circle around a burning pyre, as Native American dancers moved and swayed in the flickering light.

Welcome to the Indigenous People’s Thanksgiving Day, formerly known as Unthanksgiving Day. While most Americans are still asleep, this annual tradition commemorates the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz – famed for its now disused prison – by Native American activists from 1969-1971.

Dancers at dawn on Alcatraz Island.
Dancers at dawn on Alcatraz Island. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

The ceremony began before dawn in the prison’s main courtyard. “We give thanks everyday and today. We have ceremonies to the sun to give thanks for our lives, for the beatings of our heart,” said Andrea Carmen, the director of the International Indian Treaty Council, who joined fellow Native Americans, other indigenous tribes and “citizen allies”.

Dancing, prayers and speeches celebrated the occupation’s history alongside modern political battles: Standing Rock, family separation at the US-Mexico border, and the need to protect the Earth from climate change.

“It’s not so easy to get up early in the morning,” said Carmen. “But I hope people can take that commitment and see there’s energy to make a change. Everyone can do something.”

The crowd this year was more than 5,000.
The crowd this year was more than 5,000. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

How the occupation began

It’s this type of commitment that started the modern Native American protest movement nearly 50 years ago, when a handful of people occupied Alcatraz.

In 1969, a 28-year-old, Mohawk named Richard Oakes began to campaign, seeking justice for tribes. The New York native was renowned locally for helping develop one of the nation’s first Native American-studies curriculums at San Francisco State University. When San Francisco’s only Indian social center burned down in late October in a possible hate crime, Oakes and friends decided an urgent statement about tribal sovereignty was needed.

Richard Oakes in 1970.
Richard Oakes in 1970. Photograph: Sal Veder/AP

Their attention turned to Alcatraz, the federally owned prison island that had closed in 1963. In 1964, Sioux activists had invoked the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which allowed for “retired, abandoned or out-of-use federal land” to be returned to Native Americans.

On the night of 9 November, Oakes and 13 others waited on a San Francisco pier for their boats to the island. Eloy Martinez, a recent transplant from Colorado who would become one of Oakes’s closest friends, remembers what happened.

“A guy with a big old boat, a Canadian, came by and picked up the group. But he stopped short of the island.” That’s when Oakes jumped off and swam. Others followed. After hiding for hours, they were found and kicked off.

Ball games outside the prison wall during the Alcatraz Island occupation in 1969.
Ball games outside the prison wall during the Alcatraz Island occupation in 1969. Photograph: AP

Nearly two weeks later, on 20 November, they returned with more than 80 people and claimed the island by Right of Discovery, a doctrine once used by the United States to justify claiming land that belonged to indigenous people. Like the Treaty of Fort Laramie, the doctrine gave occupiers a legal leg to stand on.

Two days later, on Thanksgiving, hundreds more joined them, bringing supplies for a sunrise ceremony and a community meal. They would occupy the land for 19 months – making the occupation one of the longest in US history.

“You can say Richard lit the spark and Indian activism hit the water,” Martinez said.

Dancers get ready to perform.
Dancers get ready to perform. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

Once in control of the island, the leadership called itself the Indians of All Tribes and sent a message to the US interior department through the media.

It read: “We invite the United States to acknowledge the justice of our claim. The choice now lies with the leaders of the American government – to use violence upon us as before to remove us from our Great Spirit’s land, or to institute a real change in its dealing with the American Indian.”

The culture of change

During the occupation, Oakes and his team created an elected council to provide leadership and all decisions were made by unanimous consent. Martinez and others gained the support of longshoreman’s union workers sympathetic to the cause, ensuring the critical boat line of supplies stayed open.

In early 1970, tragedy struck when Oakes’ stepdaughter, Yvonne, fell off a structure in the prison yard and died. Oakes and his family left but others continued to lead. While the occupiers would stay for almost another year, things became increasingly difficult: at one point the government cut off access to fresh water, electricity, and phone lines.

Before sunrise on Indigenous People’s Thanksgiving Day.
Before sunrise on Indigenous People’s Thanksgiving Day. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

The occupation changed the course of Native American rights in America.

“It shifted public opinion on the consequences of native displacement,” said Gregory Ablavsky, a Stanford Law professor. “People started to think about Native American issues as an ongoing injustice and changed hearts and minds.”

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the occupation continues to have an impact. Lillawa Willie, for example, said she grew up hearing about her family living in Alcatraz. For years before the occupation, the Willie family of six, led by her grandmother, Rosalie, lived in hardship. Food, shelter, and access to education weren’t always available. But Alcatraz changed that.

The event is used to protest Thanksgiving and draw attention to political issues.
The event is used to protest Thanksgiving and draw attention to political issues. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

The family liked being part of a forward looking community, using tribal education as a tool to redefine their place in the world. One of the themes of the occupation, besides sovereignty, was the huge educational need of Native Americans. On the island, Berkeley students convinced Rosalie that she could attend the university, which in turn inspired others in her family to follow in her footsteps.

‘We’re happy to be here’

What was once an intimate ceremony has since grown into a major event that sees thousands travel from across California to attend. Colin Kaepernick, the NFL player and activist, even made a surprise appearance last year, speaking to the crowd about the power of resistance.

Those attending today’s ceremony for the first time mentioned being mesmerized by the pageantry of the dancing and the power of the speeches. Small children joined their parents around the fire, with chests and feet bare, feathers flying in the open air, knowing and proud of their traditions.

Elijah Oakes (the grandson of Richard Oakes) with his mother Fawn Oakes.
Elijah Oakes (the grandson of Richard Oakes) with his mother Fawn Oakes. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

Among the giant circle of people watching was Fawn Oakes, the daughter of Richard Oakes. Fawn has devoted her life to reminding people of the bravery of her father and his friends. Today she also recalled her mother Annie’s struggle. The first day they all came back to the island for a reunion like this, a decade ago, had been full of anxiety. Her mom did not speak that day. But they got through with it, she says, because they remembered the great sacrifices of their family. Now, as then, they were present when needed.

“We’re happy to be here. Happy to see everyone,” she said as she looked at the crowd.


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