San Francisco’s Indigenous ‘Unthanksgiving’ returns full force to Alcatraz Island

‘This is a chance to highlight truth in history’

The annual Indigenous Peoples’ Thanksgiving Sunrise Ceremony is set to return this year in full force after a move to live-stream the event due to the pandemic last year.

Since 1975, thousands have gathered on Alcatraz Island from near and far in a day of mourning for Indigenous people, also known as “Unthanksgiving Day.” Last year, just 70 trekked out at the break of dawn so everyone else could watch a live stream at home for the first time, safe from the prospect of coronavirus.

Tickets this year for the in-person event were selling out faster than usual, leaving some upset they wouldn’t be able to make it. More than 5,000 people typically attend the event put on by the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC), an event that is typically broadcast on KPFA.

“There’s always been capacity issues,” said Morning Star Gali, IITC organizer. “It’s going to be really beautiful to have this large, extended family and community reunion again.”

The tradition started in 1975, six years after Indigenous activists occupied Alcatraz Island to claim the place that was promised in one of several treaties, later broken by the federal government.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American in a presidential cabinet secretary, spoke on the island last Saturday celebrating Indigenous accomplishments to mark the 52nd anniversary of the groundbreaking occupation.

The myth of the Thanksgivingis that the Wampanoags welcomed pilgrims 400 years ago with open arms to feast in peace with the pioneers. But as historians recount, it was an uneasy alliance for the tribe. They tried to stay protected from a rival tribe by aligning with the settlers, even though earlier European arrivals had brought diseases that decimated most of the local Indigenous population. Colonists took over more land and resources, eventually leading to a war that devastated the Wampanoag and empowered European settlers.

“This is a continuing movement to recognize the Indigenous people of California that were almost invisible at first,” said Andrea Carmen, IITC executive director. “This is a chance to highlight truth in history and validate the reality of Indigenous peoples’ experience of genocide here. It’s a chance to affirm our unity.”

Carmen, a Yaqui Native American, said the program hasn’t changed much through the years but has grown tremendously in size from what was originally a few dozen people when she began attending in the 1980s.

The program this year includes dancers from Round Valley Indian Tribes in Northern California, prayers and singing, a Palestinian solidarity statement, Native Hawaiian speakers, a segment honoring missing and murdered Indigenous women, and Director Merri Lopez-Keifer from the California Attorney General Office of Native American Affairs. The IITC Facebook page will host a live stream once again.

Colin Kaepernick, who has attended in recent years, was set to send a food truck to feed the performers afterward, Gali said. One dancer, Bay Area native Tiny Rosales who grew up attending the gathering, said the dance she is part of is a healing dance originating from her Ojibwe ancestors.

“It’s very healing and it’s very good for our souls,” said Rosales of Restoring Justice for Indigenous People. “We dance for the people, we dance for the sick, we dance for the ones who cannot and we dance for the ancestors.”

Rosales’ mother, who was part of the American Indian Movement of the 1960s, is unable to make it to the gathering in person but, thanks to the continued live-stream, can watch her daughter perform nonetheless.

April McGill, executive director of the American Indian Cultural Center, said that people were so happy and thankful to see last year’s stream. The center has provided some community members with tickets to ensure access.

McGill hopes that people think about what the holiday really means and rethink it. The idea isn’t to do away with the holiday altogether but to remove the celebration of Thanksgiving, instead retaining gratitude for the fall harvest. It bothers McGill that children in schools are still dressing up as Indians and Pilgrims. Rosales noted that she often had to argue with her teachers as a child about the history.

“It’s a really powerful time to come together,” McGill said. “Instead of how we were taught traditionally, try to change the narrative and create something that will help our people, something that will be a powerful way to share our resilience. I hope people understand what this holiday represents and change it.”

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