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Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

YELAMU, OHLONE LANDS, California — Thursday was a day of solidarity.

Indigenous people and allies spent their morning on Alcatraz Island off the mainland. This gathering has been the norm for decades on a day the federal government deems a holiday and millions of U.S. citizens commemorate it with a baked bird and all the fixings.

Not here.

For a handful of hours, the word “Thanksgiving” was barely mentioned and usually only during its destructive context to Indigenous people. Instead, Thursday’s sunrise gathering started at 5:30 a.m. on the famous island, with a bustling San Francisco downtown as a backdrop, and was a designated space for prayer, dance and song. Arvol Looking Horse, a Lakota spiritual leader, was a featured guest.

Morning Star Gali, Pit River Nation, is the International Indian Treaty Council California community and tribal liaison. (Photo by Dalton Walker, Indian Country Today)

“It was really beautiful to be able to welcome people from all over Turtle Island and across the world to gather, to pray here for us,” Morning Star Gali, Pit River Nation, said. Gali helped organize the sunrise gathering and is the International Indian Treaty Council California community and tribal liaison.

“It’s such an honor to listen to all the stories that are shared and listen to all the statements of solidarity… We are still here, we are here on ‘The Rock,’ and we’ll continue to be here,” Gali said.

Support for Indigenous people fighting mercury contamination, woodland and prairie oil pipelines, historical boarding school impacts, saving Mauna Kea to freeing Palestine were among the topics talked about.

“It’s important to remember the brutal history of genocide that Indigenous peoples have suffered.” Andrea Carmen, Yaqui, the treaty council’s executive director, said in a statement. “It’s also important that we gather together to give thanks for our lives, the survival and resiliency of our cultures and the spirit of resistance passed down to us by our ancestors.”

Related articles:
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A Wampanoag retelling of Thanksgiving
A Canadian looks at American Thanksgiving
At Alcatraz Island, Deb Haaland highlights Indigenous progress

Across the country, and on the coast of Massachusetts in downtown Plymouth, Indigenous people gathered in observance of the National Day of Mourning. It’s the 52nd year that the United American Indians of New England have organized the event on the fourth Thursday of November. The annual day of mourning was live streamed on YouTube.

Kisha James, Aquinnah Wampanoag and Oglala Lakota, is the granddaughter of event founder Wamsutta Frank James. She spoke at the event and challenged the history of what most learn about Thanksgiving and what happened to her ancestors 400 years ago.

“When people perpetuate the myth of Thanksgiving they are not only erasing our genocide but also celebrating it,” James said. “We did not simply fade into the background as Thanksgiving myth says, we have survived and thrived, we have persevered. The very fact that you are here is proof that we did not vanish.”

Sunrise gathering on Alcatraz Island, Nov. 25, 2021. (Photo by Dalton Walker, Indian Country Today)

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In California, the sunrise gathering, in its 43rd year, started under the stars and in barely 50 degree weather that slowly warmed up as the sun rose. Although it felt colder with the predictable wind blowing off the bay.

The weather wasn’t much of a factor, still. Hundreds of people, most bundled up in anticipation of a brisk November morning, woke up early to catch the boat from the mainland to the island.

Sunrise gathering on Alcatraz Island, Nov. 25, 2021. (Photo by Dalton Walker, Indian Country Today)

The boat line was already hundreds of people long by 4 a.m. and at least two large boats went to and from the island with passengers.

The gathering started with an Ohlone welcome just off the shoreline where visitors were dropped off and next to a building with a well-known defaced sign that remains decades after it was marked. The sign initially said “United States Property” and has since read “Indians Welcome, United Indian Property” with “Indian Land” at the bottom all in red painted letters.

After, visitors marched up to the top of the island and to an open space that had a group of fire keepers. Elders or those not able to walk that distance, received a ride.

More than a dozen speakers shared words. Organizers estimated 5,000 people visited the island in support. The gathering was broadcasted live on FM radio and on social media.

Teyana Viscarra, Tewa and Apache, and Norm Sands, Yaqui, brought two teepees to the gathering. One was red to shed light on the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis. The other is orange and purposely smaller to signal the found children at residential boarding schools.

“This is just one small way that we participate in that story,” Viscarra said.

Sunrise gathering on Alcatraz Island, Nov. 25, 2021. (Photo by Dalton Walker, Indian Country Today)

Sands said they take the teepees across the state to bring awareness.

“We are not invisible, we are still here. “These don’t just come here or travel to communities. These go in front of police stations that don’t see us, media outlets that don’t see us, those big marble buildings that don’t see us.”

Miguel Muteado Silencio, Purhépecha, along with a large group, shared a traditional dance and prayer.

“By us being here, by celebrating Thanksgiving with ceremony and undoing those lies that are being told of our people and the lies of geneocide,” he said.

Alcatraz Island falls under the National Park Service and face coverings are required in park buildings and in crowded outdoor spaces.

Roughly a week before Thursday’s sunrise gathering, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, visited the island to acknowledge the 52nd anniversary of the 19-month Indigenous occupation of Alcatraz.

“In November of 1969, a history began with acts of defiance to ‘Take the Rock.’ 52 years later, I stood on @AlcatrazIsland as the first Native American cabinet secretary to share the progress made and my hopes for the future of Indigenous peoples,” Haaland wrote in a Nov. 22 tweet.

Thursday’s sunrise gathering also commemorated the Alcatraz occupation.

“History has come to reflect a different perspective,” read an International Indian Treaty Council news release. “The occupation is highlighted as a key historical event in the daily tours of Alcatraz. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors issued a proclamation in 2009 recognizing the importance of this event in San Francisco’s history.”

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