A family takes off from Aquatic Park Cove heading towards Alcatraz Island during San Francisco’s Alcatraz Canoe Journey on Oct. 14, 2019.

Native American communities canoe around Alcatraz to honor their history and inspire future leaders

The water was piercing cold, but Owen Oliver said he felt numb to the waves and the wind Monday morning as he climbed into his canoe and set out towards Alcatraz Island for San Francisco’s first Alcatraz Canoe Journey.

By taking part in the inter-tribal canoe paddle to honor the 50th anniversary of the island’s indigenous occupation, Oliver was following in the footsteps of his father, Marvin Oliver, who was one of 89 protesters that in 1969 reached and occupied ‘the rock.’ The protesters pronounced Alcatraz “the land of all tribes” and helped launch the current era of indigenous rights advocacy.

His father, in turn, was following the example of his grandfather, Emmett Oliver, who was just 18 – two years younger than Owen Oliver – when he launched the first canoe journey of the 20th century, leading a dozen canoe families into Seattle for Washington State’s 1989 centennial celebrations. That journey is now an annual event that had more than 4,000 participants last year.

“Yeah it was cold, but I couldn’t feel all that,” Owen Oliver said. “It was just all those feelings. It’s a sense of pride, a sense of humility.”

Monday’s Alcatraz Canoe Journey will join the occupation of Alcatraz and the “Paddle to Seattle” in history books as the first Native American inter-tribal canoe paddle in the state of California.

“Thank you for letting me paddle in California for the first time… and, most importantly, for cultural revitalization,” Owen Oliver told a crowd of hundreds of Native American tribe members and indigenous rights supporters after the paddle, with water and sand still pasted across his body.

“Canoes hadn’t been carved in 60 years before tribal journeys, and now we’re all here, so proud of our canoes and so proud of the giants that went over there and occupied Alcatraz. And now we look for another movement to take and honor that energy… and make a change.”

Participating in this new generation of indigenous rights advocacy, Native Americans from “as far North as British Columbia and as far West as Hawaii” travelled to San Francisco’s Aquatic Park beach to paddle around Alcatraz alongside Owen Oliver, said organizer and spokesperson Julian Brave NoiseCat.

To welcome the paddlers, elder Ruth Orta from the Ohlone Tribe – the original inhabitants of the Bay Area, who were decimated in the wake of the California Gold Rush – spoke to the lines of canoes about the importance of this event.

“We survived a genocide and we are still right here. This is where we came from. My mother and grandmother were here their entire lives,” Orta said in a statement. “The people of the world—they need to know we are here. I am so honored to welcome these canoes from far and wide.”

A member of the Chitactac indigenous community from Santa Clara County, Antonio Moreno said the experience was unifying and did justice to its ancestral origins.

“This journey is solidarity. It’s unity. You know, the original occupants of Alcatraz decided to use the term ‘Indians of All Tribes’,” Moreno said. “This is one way to acknowledge their message and continue that struggle because we still haven’t won all their human rights. And it’s not just for us anymore, it’s for future generations.”

After the journey, the paddlers gathered near the Maritime Museum to share stories, and honor each other with dances and songs.

“For the ‘Paddle to Seattle,’ we travel for a couple of weeks, and then celebrate four to seven days, 12 to 24 hours per day,” Jeffrey Smith, a member of the Makah Tribe of the Pacific Northwest coast and a co-organizer of the event, said. “But because we only have a permit until one o’clock, everybody’s gotta rush to get it done in an hour or two.”

Despite time pressures, Smith said the Alcatraz Canoe Journey will become a fundamental part of local tribal traditions, and remains “one of the biggest, most exciting things” locals have experienced in years.

Smith participated in the Paddle to Seattle for decades, bringing his son Robbie along from a very young age, he said. Now, at 20 years-old, Robbie took on Monday’s journey without his father, as one of a dozen students representing the Stanford American Indian Organization.

Among many other organizations represented at the event were also the California Historical Society, the Exploratorium, the Natural History Museum, the Presidio Trust, the San Francisco Museum of Art and SF Public Library, which together hosted a special speaker series to honor the anniversary of The Occupation.

Environmental organizations also took the opportunity Monday to celebrate the indigenous environmental movement, supporting the conservation of both indigenous history and indigenous natural lands.

“We ask the federal and state governments and organizations to stand with us as we begin the process to acknowledge the past and the harms that have been inflicted,” said Shirley Williams, representing indigenous-led organization Whiteswan Environmental, “and (take) atonement for the cause and action to change the behavior.”

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A member of the Chitactac indigenous community from Santa Clara County, Antonio Moreno sits in his canoe after looping Alcatraz Island during San Francisco’s Alcatraz Canoe Journey on Oct. 14, 2019.

A member of the Makah Tribe of the Pacific Northwest coast, Robbie Smith (blue life vest) returns to shore after looping around Alcatraz Island during San Francisco’s Alcatraz Canoe Journey on Oct. 14, 2019. (Caroline Ghisolfi/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

Shirley Williams, representing indigenous-led organization Whiteswan Environmental, asks federal and state governments to acknowledge and make amends for the wrongs inflicted upon indigenous people after San Francisco’s Alcatraz Canoe Journey on Oct. 14, 2019.

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