Sunrise Ceremony held on Alcatraz Island

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The wind had died down in the Berkeley Marina and all that was left was the quiet expanse of docked boats and the heavy smell of smoke in the air. Fires were burning across Sonoma County and Napa Valley, and the 4 a.m. light pollution caught the ashy haze in the sky. The crew began getting ready to embark. Kanyon Sayers-Roods — a member of the Mutsun Ohlone from Indian Canyon, which is the only federally acknowledged Indian country along the California coast between Rohnert Park and Santa Barbara — began the morning by recognizing that this was Ohlone land.

As the boat sped across the water towards San Francisco, Sayers-Roods sang a series of songs in Rumsen and other Ohlone languages. Others joined in and began to dance in the small space on the deck of the boat. The general air of the people making their way to Alcatraz Island early that morning for Indigenous Peoples’ Day was a positive one.

Indigenous People’s Day coincides with Columbus Day and reclaims a history erased by Euro-American colonialism, while affirming the presence and cultures of indigenous peoples. This particular iteration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day was being held in a significant location: Alcatraz.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Alcatraz was occupied by Native American activists and was compared many times that morning to “the Standing Rock of the 20th century.”

Alcatraz is a menacing place to arrive before dawn. The fog obscures San Francisco and the East Bay, giving off the impression of open waters, and every structure looks like a variation on the same cell block. But the crowd that had amassed on the dock was numerous, and the focus of the morning quickly shifted away from the prison. As the drum began to beat, a speaker announced that all of the security guards for the event were indigenous. The smell of sage drifted around the crowd. We began to walk up a winding road cut into the sides of the island, now overgrown with vegetation.

Reminders of the occupation were embedded into the infrastructure of the island. They were written across the water tower, above the “United States Penitentiary” sign on the docks. “WELCOME INDIANS,” read one in a weathered, but still legible, red paint. “INDIAN LAND,” read another.

The Sunrise Ceremony, true to its name, began in the dark and ended in broad daylight. Through the course of the ceremony, the lighthouse with its six revolving beams of light circled overhead. Members from the 1969 occupation revisited the site, now 48 years later, and spoke about their experiences and the direction of the movement. Activists and community organizers were present from many tribes and regions, a mark of interregional organizing and collaboration which was part of the movement from the occupation. The importance of indigenous protocol was engaged many times, and the songs and dances offered that morning were prefaced as being not performances for entertainment, but rather rites and prayers.

Desirae Harp offered two songs, starting with a Warrior Women’s Song. She then offered a Salmon Water Prayer Song that she wrote in the ɂonaɂcáṭis language — literally translated as “People Who Are Outspoken” — while on a prayer journey lead by indigenous women. After the last dances were offered, the crowd began to disperse and head back to the docks.

The island stopped feeling like a prison the moment the sun rose. San Francisco sat across the water in the pink tinted fog. Tall stocks of yucca flowers and Joshua trees grew around the rubble of what were once prison or military structures. The old chain-link fences were overgrown with vines and honeysuckles. The sun had risen completely, but the moon was still up, hanging over the bay through the ashy haze. The 50-year anniversary of the occupation will be in 2019.

Contact Blue Fay at [email protected].