Thousands of Indigenous people and their loved ones have come from all over to participate in the Thanksgiving Sunrise Gathering on Alcatraz Island every year since 1975.
But this year, it was down to a core group of roughly 70 people early Wednesday morning, with the rest watching from home, safe from the risk of contracting coronavirus.
In recent years, the sunrise ceremony has brought between 5,500 and 6,000 people, according to organizer Morning Star Gali with the International Indian Treaty Council. This time, a big gathering also funded by San Francisco’s American Indian Cultural District wasn’t an option, nor was having the event on Thanksgiving Day itself.
Organizers were allowed 300 people under National Parks Service allowances but aimed for less than 100, Gali said. The event was streamed live on Facebook early Wednesday morning for the first time in the gathering’s 45-year history and will be broadcast on KPFA as usual on Thursday from 6-8 a.m.
“We felt it was important to be as safe as we can,” Gali said. “We have veterans who are immunocompromised who didn’t want to take a risk with that. [Streaming] was helpful for people who have issues with access or disability.”
The gathering began in 1975, six years after Indigenous activists temporarily occupied the island to reclaim what was promised in one of many treaties broken by the federal government.
It usually begins with a welcome acknowledging San Francisco’s Ramaytush Ohlone Tribe, followed by statements, dances, and singing. Kumeyaay, Aztec, and Round Valley tribes took part in performances this year.
An Alcatraz veteran, who goes by the artist name Urbanrezlife, was able to watch her cousin perform virtually from her Bay Area home. She was part of the occupation of Alcatraz as an eight-year-old and has attended the Indigenous Peoples Thanksgiving Sunrise Gathering for 25 years.
“It was still really powerful,” said Urbanrezlife, who has strictly isolated for more than 200 days due to health issues. “Today was the first time they did a live stream and I’m so happy for it. More people will know about the [occupation] story. That really changed the history for our people in Indian Country.”
The holiday, mythologized as a peaceful coming together between Pilgrims and Mashpee Wampanoag 400 years ago, is a day of mourning for many Indigenous people whose ancestors died en masse from diseases brought by settlers. The parallels this year between experiencing a devastating pandemic and what their ancestors lived through is not lost on them, said Hartman Deetz.
Deetz, a Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe member who previously lived in the Bay Area and attended the sunrise gathering, said that around this time of year, Indigenous groups get a lot of attention, but there is a lot of corrective work about the violence European colonists inflicted on them that still needs to be done.
“Our truth is erased and we’re replaced with teams like the Washington Redskins,” said Deetz, now back in the traditional Wampanoag homeland in Massachusetts. “Look at us as living, breathing people, see what Native people are doing in your regional areas. Find out what their story is, what their needs are, what they’re working to advance.”
In the case of the Wampanoag Tribe today, they’re trying to hold on to their federal recognition, which has been challenged by the Trump administration. At risk are their rights to a fraction of the land his people have lived on for thousands of years, Deetz said.
Deetz now takes part in the National Day of Mourning commemorated on Thanksgiving on the site where Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Ma. On the West Coast, the sunrise gathering on Alcatraz also commemorates survival and provides healing.
Gali said they hope to continue streaming going forward, as long as they have access to decent enough equipment.
“I’m really happy that everybody can see it,” Urbanrezlife said. “There’s no place like it.”