Canoe journey to mark 50th anniversary of Indians occupation of Alcatraz

That strange, cold, memorable night marked the beginning of the 19-month Native American occupation of Alcatraz.

The wind was freezing cold as Eloy Martinez and a small group sailed from Sausalito to Alcatraz Island the night of November 20, 1969. His adrenalin was pumping, but Martinez remembers still wishing he had worn something heavier. Across the Bay, he could hear the fog horn and the distant sounds of trolley bells and conversations in San Francisco. It smelled like Dungeness crab was cooking in Ghiradelli Square.

When the people aboard arrived at Alcatraz, they started burning old wood pallets to fight the cold — it was too creepy to find warmth in the old jail cells. Some in the group played the drums around the fire, and one man began blowing on a bagpipe.

“Alcatraz was wide open,” Martinez told me. “There was nobody telling us what to do.”

That strange, cold, memorable night marked the beginning of the 19-month Native American occupation of Alcatraz. The event united indigenous groups around the world and awakened the public to the human and environmental injustices disproportionately faced by Native Americans. Although occupiers were removed from Alcatraz on June 11, 1971, they succeeded in igniting a movement that still burns today.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic occupation, Martinez and a group of indigenous organizers are holding a canoe journey from Aquatic Park to Alcatraz on October 14 — Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Over 20 tribes plan to bring their canoes and participate, some from as far as British Columbia, Canada and Hawaii.

“The canoe is one of the most powerful and universal forms of indigenous travel,” Julian Brave NoiseCat, an Oakland native of Tsq’escenemc and Lil’Wat Nation heritage, told me. “Many native nations used the canoe to assert their rights to the water, access resources, and bring people together. It’s a vehicle for our culture.”

Traveling with a heavy canoe is no easy task. When NoiseCat, Martinez and the committee began discussing the event in 2017, they didn’t imagine so many tribes would want to participate. The dedicated volunteers who helped turn their dream into a reality is a sign that the Alcatraz occupation has had a profound impact on generations of indigenous people.

“Alcatraz was a huge part of the community’s history and part of my own upbringing as a native person in Oakland,” NoiseCat said.

For NoiseCat and many others, the spirit of resistance that grew on the island 50 years ago, still lives today.

It was present on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, as indigenous groups from around the world came together to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. It’s at Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, where tribes are fighting President Donald Trump’s proposal to open their religiously and culturally important sites to oil and gas drilling. It showed itself in 2018, when the first Native American women members to Congress were elected.

In San Francisco, it was present when Native Americans finally succeeded in removing the controversial “Early Days” sculpture, which depicted a fallen American Indian lying at the feet of colonists. After fifty years without a cultural center, one is finally in the works, as well as a new cultural district in the Mission.

Alcatraz sparked a fire that continues to burn after 50 years, but the road to healing is still long. The number of missing and murdered indigenous women continues to grow. The Ohlone, who first called the Bay Area home, continue to feel invisible on their land.

“We survived the genocide and we are still right here. This is where we came from. My mother and grandmother were here their entire lives,” Rutha Orta, an Ohlone elder who will welcome the canoes next week, said. “The people of the world — they need to know we’re here.”

To keep the spirit of Alcatraz alive, San Franciscans should attend the many events celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day next week, including the canoe journey from 6:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at Aquatic Park.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at

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