Alcatraz Sunrise Ceremony Sheds Light on Indigenous People’s Day

On Monday, Oct. 10, people from all across the United States gathered on Alcatraz Island to celebrate the annual Indigenous Peoples’ Day Sunrise Gathering. This event commemorates the 1969-1971 occupation of the island by Bay Area Native Americans and aims to celebrate the courage and resilience of Native Americans in spite of years of dislocation.

SAN FRANCISCO — While the moon shone over San Francisco early on the morning of Oct. 10, a crowd at Pier 33 boarded a 4.a.m boat to Alcatraz Island to celebrate the annual Indigenous Peoples’ Day Sunrise Gathering.

The event, which commemorates the 1969-1971 occupation of the island by Bay Area Native Americans, was organized by the International Indian Treaty Council, an organization that celebrates the courage and resilience of Native Americans despite years of dislocation.

This year’s gathering came as Native American activists continue to work to replace Columbus Day with celebrations that honor Indigenous communities. To date, more than 14 states and 100 cities have officially swapped Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, while 11 states still celebrate both holidays.

For Morning Star Gali, project director of Restoring Justice for Indigenous Peoples, the event is a way to reestablish the truth about the history of Native Americans.

“We are here to be together in prayer, solidarity and resistance,” Gali said. “For many decades there have been efforts in erasing our story, in shifting the narrative, about Columbus discovering us. We know that’s not true, and so we dispel those myths and are here to tell the truth.”

The event included performances from Aztec and Powwow Dancers accompanied by Native American songs, lectures, and prayers from prominent figures in the Indigenous community collectively showcasing the richness of culture and history of native Americans.

Before Alcatraz became widely known as a maximum-security prison, the island belonged to the Bay Area Natives, who were known as Ohlone. On November 9, 1969, a group of Native American activists led by Richard Oakes, an Akwesasne Mohawk, emblematically reclaimed the island for the Native people. For 19 months, the group occupied the island until Federal Marshals removed them on June 11, 1971. A symbolical place to celebrate the protest event of 1969.Even though the physical occupation of the island ended, it set a movement that continues to this day.

“As a California Indian woman, every day is a fight against erasure,” Gali said. “Every day is a fight against the invisibility of our peoples and who we are. And so, we’re here today to show that we still exist, we’re still very much alive and fighting for our continued resistance, fighting for our rights as Native peoples.”

Ernando, a Yaqui Native American, has been attending the event for the past eight years. To him, the purpose of the gathering remains the same: making sure that no one forgets the past nor the atrocities Native Americans continue to endure.

“It’s a day of celebration but also a continuous fight against the erasure and invisibility of our peoples,” Ernando said. “Looking at what our people have suffered and the impact of colonization, we take this day as a day of recognizing -our survivability and also our resiliency.”

Indigenous Peoples’ Day has been celebrated in the Bay Area since 1992, originating as a protest of Columbus Day. Last year, President Joseph Biden became the first President to officially recognize the holiday via a formal proclamation.

“If you look into the history books, we are mostly talked about in the past tense,” Ania, a longtime resident of the Bay Area, said. “We’re mostly spoken about as though we no longer exist today. It’s a constant opportunity to show that we’re very much here and very much alive, in solidarity with all peoples that have been fighting and continue to fight all over the world.”

While their history has been written against their will for many years, the Native American community keeps choosing not to look backward but rather focus on the future and finding ways to empower the future generation of young Native American leaders.

Gali said it is one of her daughter’s favorite occasions. Her relatives are “dancing and continuing on the songs and stories of our community,” Gali said. “It’s really important for us to be here today.”


  • Lisa Setyon-Ortenzio

    Lisa Setyon-Ortenzio is a trilingual French-raised journalist and graduate of NYU School of Journalism who is passionate about shining a light on issues impacting underserved and often marginalized communities. Prior to enrolling at Stanford, she worked for 2-years as a field producer for France Télévisions in Washington D.C. She covered an array of subjects including the presidential election of 2020, the COVID-19 crisis, Black Lives Matter Protests, Roe v. Wade being overturned and global economic and business matters. She has previously worked as a freelance multimedia journalist in Paris and as a production assistant at ABC News in New York. She is particularly engaged in topics of politics, race and ethnicity, data analysis, business and technology. At Stanford she is interested in incorporating more analytics and graphics into traditional media storytelling and thus promoting a more data-driven journalism that would empower readers to act in a more responsible way.

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