By Dani Gomez
Oakland Tribune Correspondent
A powerful chant penetrated the chilling pre-dawn darkness of
Alcatraz as an estimated 3,000 people gathered on Thanksgiving for
the annual Indigenous People's Sunrise Gathering.
A few dozen traditional Aztec and Pomo dancers performed as drums
sounded and seagulls flew overhead. Dressed in attire decorated with
skulls, colorful feathers and leopard skins, the performers moved
their bodies in a rhythmic dance as the master of ceremonies smoked
sage to ward off evil spirits and purify the event.
The event was first held in November 1975 and has become a special
moment of pride, mourning and tribute to those who have managed to
preserve the native culture for future generations of indigenous
people across the country and around the world.
"We are here to offer our prayers, our songs and thank the Mother
Earth that we are still here," said one of the elders in the opening
ceremony of the event.
Between the dancing, singing and tobacco offerings, several American
Indian Movement veterans honored the memories of those who had paved
the way for the indigenous civil rights movement taking place today.
As the large crowd gathered around the sacred bonfire, guest speakers
acknowledged the past and present issues relevant to native survival
and told attendees that the battle for indigenous rights is far from over.
"We are here not just to celebrate," said Bill Means, a guest speaker
and a veteran of the American Indian Movement.
"We are here to reflect on conditions of the indigenous people around
Means mentioned the 1969 Alcatraz occupation by American Indian
students, saying that because of the example they set during that
time, the indigenous civil rights movement was inevitable. He cited
the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples approved last
year by the United Nations as an example of what's happening today.
"We are building a strong movement here, as you can see," Means said.
"The fire of resistance is 80 million strong, and it will continue to grow."
Mark Whitehorn, a member of the Otoe tribe, came from Oklahoma to
participate in the ceremony. He said that although he doesn't feel
prejudice from the mainstream holiday, it's important to keep the
"It's good to see so many native people present, especially young
people," he said. "This event puts the minds of young people in the
right place. They might not act like it, but it catches their hearts."
Frank Paro, of the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa Indians and a
chairman of Twin Cities American Indian Movement, said the event
contributed to raising awareness among the younger generations of
"It's gatherings like these the youth are looking at," Paro said. "It
gives them new ideas of what they can do, so they will be able to
take over after us."
Despite the notion that the gathering is mainly designed to address
the indigenous needs, others gave thanks as well.
Rafael Meng of Santa Cruz said this was his second time attending the event.
"I am not Native American, but since I was a little boy I feel
kinship with the Indians," Meng said. "To me, the American Indian way
of life is better than the mainstream because it touches the things
that matter to me: struggle for freedom, fight for the environment
and equal rights. It's a heart thing."