Indigenous Peoples’ Sunrise Gathering sparks celebration on Thanksgiving

Cameryn Smith

Love and grief filled Alcatraz Island on Nov. 24, as people from all over the country gathered to commemorate the Indigenous peoples. On  Thanksgiving, Indigenous peoples in the Bay Area take time to grieve for the 700 who were murdered hundreds of years ago during the Pequot massacre, also gathering to combat the issues of injustice and fighting for land that they have faced in the past. The event known as the Alcatraz Indigenous Peoples’ Sunrise Gathering attracted many groups as the sun rose over them.

Waving proudly above the crowd, the American Indian movement flag blows in the wind as the sunrise ceremony takes place.

Starting at 4:15 a.m., people took to the ferry from Pier 33 in San Francisco, with the ride ending at Alcatraz Island. The parking lots were full and the lines were long, but eventually the community gathered on the island at the 5:45 a.m. ceremony. The tickets were completely sold out and a surge of community members overtook the island in the early morning.

Once off the boat, those attending were greeted with a sign reading “Indians Welcome,” that sits on Alcatraz Island and from there, a walk up a hill took everyone to the large gathering area. Meeting around a fire in a large circle, some bundled with blankets, tents and multiple layers. Prayers, songs and dances took place in this circle, and off to the side many stood peacefully to watch the sunrise over the water and the city. Though the weather was cold, warmth was present among the community as families and friends connected.

The sign reading, “Indians welcome. United Indian property. Indian Land,” is first noticed after leaving the boat.

Victoria BlackHawk, a mother to three sons, is grateful to bring them to this event as the Indigenous community is a large part of their family culture due to relatives who were part of the first taking of Alcatraz.

“It’s very important for me to bring [my boys] here. Their relatives were part of the first taking of Alcatraz [and] I feel very fortunate to bring them here and be a part of it,” BlackHawk said. 

Many relatives that could not attend the celebration still had a presence through voice recordings.

Albert Titman, a singer at the event who has attended the gathering for 15 years, recounted the history of this event. Tribal groups occupied the island of Alcatraz and later got imprisoned. Then in the 70s, this led a group of committed indigenous peoples yearning to make a statement. 

“[The Sunrise Gathering] is a tradition of honoring the original people of this place and letting society know that tribal people are still here,” Titman said. 

Titman also emphasizes the origins of Thanksgiving and the misinformation that has come along with that. 

“Some people will call it ‘Un-Thanksgiving.’ Not that we’re ungrateful or not thankful for what we have … but to really undo … for us the consequences, the sacrifices of colonial domination,” Titman said.

Not only are Indigenous peoples welcome at this ceremony, but every race and culture that wants to help or attend. By remembering the struggles and lives of Indigenous peoples, the ceremony presents itself with a call to action for everyone involved, showing that allies can find ways to help the community in order to be heard as a society. 

Scanning the crowd, Blackhawk recognized the many people who were present at the ceremony. 

“I kinda get emotional a little bit. [It’s] a really good feeling hearing the songs and seeing so many people,” BlackHawk said. 

In hopes to gather before the rest of Thanksgiving day traditions commence, the Indigenous Peoples’ Sunrise ceremony brought an abundance of peace, love and remembrance from the crowd.

Handing traditions down to his 7-year-old granddaughter, Titman says this is one of the best parts of this event and continues to look forward to the ceremony each and every year.

Wearing a traditional head piece, a woman in the crowd closely listens in and honors the Indigenous peoples on this day.

“We come here and we get to see and gather and meet and be grateful for that we still have our songs and our dances and our ceremonies,” Titman said. 

As the tradition continues each year, many will continue to gather and commemorate the Indigenous peoples that once occupied this land, through prayers, songs and dance.