Between the Rock and a hard place
Un-Thanksgiving Day on Alcatraz, and the fight for American Indian rights
by Dani Burlison
November 23, 2010
While most Americans remain cozily tucked in warm beds, dancing
through dreams of the face-stuffing festivities that Thanksgiving day
will surely deliver, a small but significant portion of the
population ventures out into the brisk pre-dawn world of Pier 33 in
Here, groggy smiles are exchanged while sipping from thermoses of
coffee and pulling loved ones close to stay warm. Lines form,
zigzagging through the chain-link aisles that lead the way to the
ferries. Men, women and children with drums, rattles and traditional
California Indian ceremonial dress lead the way onto the first boat
and sail out on the bay.
Just before 5am, the first ferry arrives at Alcatraz for the annual
Un-Thanksgiving Day Sunrise Ceremony; seagulls squawk in circles
overhead as the cold and worn cement steps lead the drowsy mob to the
top of the Rock. The eeriness of entering a former federal prison in
the darkisolated in center of the San Francisco Bay, no lessis not
as nerve-wracking as one would imagine. Up to 4,000 people come from
all over Northern California and beyond to participate in the annual
sacred, and historical, eventand the feeling of excitement and
solidarity is enough to overshadow any apprehension. As the pounding
of drums and smoke from sage and tobacco offerings mingle with the
salty air, Native California intertribal dancers gather around the
bonfire and start the ceremony, dancing the sun up in honor of the
struggles that have passed.
This annual Sunrise Ceremony brings together an intertribal community
of American Indians and non-natives alike. But they're not here to
"give thanks" in commemoration of some apocrypha-laden dinner party
between pilgrims and Indiansa singular calm before a genocidal
storm, if you will. This fourth-Thursday-in-November gathering is
staged in commemoration of the November 1969 to June 1971 occupation
of the Rock by native people from across the United States.
• • • •
AS THE WAR in Vietnam experienced its deadliest years, the American
civil rights movement struggled, the United Farm Workers gained
strength, the Black Panther Party sprang up and the American Indian
Movement, or AIM, joined the fight for equality and formed with the
intent of combating the ongoing oppression of American Indian tribes
around the country. As the United States government continued to fall
short on promises and agreements made with American Indians, AIM
decided to reclaim unused federal property as rightfully theirs.
Sights were set on Alcatraz, which was closed and abandoned in 1963.
The plan was to inhabit or occupy the Rock to set up a center for
native studies, a clinic and other programs to improve the life of
In a symbolic gesture of discovery in the late days of November in
1969, several men jumped from a boat into the bone-chilling, rough
waters of the San Francisco Bay. They swam to the shores of the
abandoned island, claiming it in the name of Indians of All Tribes,
an intertribal, all-inclusive nation of Indians. The following 19
months were met with failed negotiations, pleas by government
officials for the inhabitants to vacate the land and a tightly woven,
undefeatable, intertribal community working together in resistance.
One of the occupants was local Pomo Indian Edward Willie, who was an
11-year-old Oakland resident when he arrived at Alcatraz. "My mother
took me, along with my brother and three sisters, right after the
occupation started," he explains. "It was a life-changing experience
It was his first time in a boat and after he arrivedwhizzing past a
useless and failed Coast Guard blockade in the nighttime bay
watersWillie and his family spent nine months on Alcatraz. Although
he had experienced life on a reservation as a young child, he found
that the political momentum and excitement of coming together with
other American Indians in this way significantly contributed to how
he developed and identified with his native heritage. He found
himself worlds away from the stresses and alienation of his East
Oakland home, surrounded by strangers who, in an instant, became his family.
"I made lifelong friendships on Alcatraz," says Willie, who went on
to earn a degree in Native Studies at UC Berkeley and now works as a
teacher and native ecologist in San Rafael. "Even when I meet new
people who were there, there is an instant bond."
The first night of the occupation found roughly 100 people on the
island, along with just enough food and supplies to last one week.
Within months, the crew of people at Alcatraz had set up a radio
program and a newspaper to communicate with others who had not been
able to leave life behind and join them for this historical event.
AIM members John Trudell, Mohawk Richard Oakes and even a young
Benjamin Bratt were among those inhabiting the Rock.
Before the end of the first week, former Marin IJ journalist Joan
Lisetor visited the island. After dodging Coast Guard ships on an
11-foot boat with no lights and climbing up a rope ladder in the dark
to reach the newest residents of Alcatraz, Lisetor arrived to a
general feeling of excitement and a sign that read: This Land Is Our
Land. She describes the buildings that the American Indians were
living in as being in horrible condition. "The place was falling
apart," she says from her Sausalito home. "It had not been cleaned up
in six years. It was awful." Still, the determination was
overwhelming. "Many people I spoke to said they had lived on
reservations that were worse."
• • • •
THE ARTICLE THAT Lisetor produced after her two-day trip to Alcatraz,
"Cold Night, Warm Spirit," caught the attention and sympathies of
many around Marin County. "Many around the county were generally
supportive," she recalls. "I even had Republican Assemblyman [William
Bagley asking me to take him out to see for himself."
"I've always been an objective reporter," laughs Lisetor when asked
about how strongly she advocated for the people at Alcatraz, "but I
still have a place for them all in my heart."
People lived in broken-down vehicles, dirty prison cells and even
tepees that were erected on the island, and worked together over the
one-and-a-half years to provide a clean and sanitary space for
everyone. Nearly a year into the occupation, counterculture youth
from the hippie movement made their way to the island as well. The
carefree party they brought was short-lived, however, and it was
decided that only true American Indians should be present. They meant
business. There was work to be done.
On the agenda was spreading awareness about the collective history,
shared experience and mistreatment by the American government. The
group's bold statementin the form of the unpermitted occupationput
elected officials under pressure to act and they went on to instate
The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, The
Indian Child Welfare Act and several claims and settlement acts.
Rights to return to native fishing and hunting practices were
regained and plots of land were returned to tribes as the result of
In the end, the government shut off power to Alcatraz, which caused
many inhabitantsespecially families with young childrento flee. A
fire swept through the island, destroying many of the buildings that
were used as housing. Finally, in June of 1971, a mass of law
enforcement agents descended onto the island and removed the
remaining 15 occupants from what they had come to know as home.
Still, the occupation was deemed a success, if only for the
solidarity that has continued for the last 40 years.
For Edward Willie, the memories of exploring the island and playing
with other children stand out the most. Although his memories of the
specific words exchanged and proclaimed by the members of his new
community are vague, what he does hold onto are the deeply embedded
feelings of determination and hope. He looks back with a sense of
pride and hope for the future. "There was an excitement in the air,
an excitement fueled by the knowledge that we were participating in
something bigger than an occupation of unused government property."
Today, Willie often participates with the Pomo singers in the yearly
ceremony commemorating Un-Thanksgiving, as it has come to be known.
Yet, it isn't just about politicizing the day with the radical
declarations made during the occupation all those years ago. "There
are a lot of Indians with a lot of different perspectives. For the
people I know, we always have to dance around with whether or not we
go to our mother's place or go to Alcatraz," he says. "We usually do
both and we're not thinking about pilgrims," he laughs and says, in
the spirit of most Americans, "it's just about family."
• • • •
AS THE SHARDS of sun continue to break through the veil of night that
was navigated to reach the cold and mighty rock that is Alcatraz,
there is a calmness in the air. It reminds those on the island that
the spirit of the occupation of Alcatraz lives on through the strands
of yearly celebrations. An unspoken and deep sense of solidarity
carries on through the day as the masses make their way through
seagulls obnoxiously hoarding tamale crumbs and back down through the
tunnels and walkways to the ferries. The early-morning risers then
part ways and make their way toward a more traditional meal with
loved onesto give thanks for food, family and community.
The Rock, meanwhile, remainsisolated and powerful. A reminder to
everyone of the accomplishments and contributions of those who came before.
Email Dani at email@example.com.
American Indians Occupy Alcatraz Island
Until the federal penitentiary was closed in 1963, Alcatraz Island
was a place most folks tried to leave. On November 20, 1969, the
island's image underwent a drastic makeover. That was the day
thousands of American Indians began an occupation that would last
until June 11, 1971.
The 1973 armed occupation of Wounded Knee along with the siege at the
Pine Ridge Reservation one year later are etched deeper into the
public consciousness in terms of recent Indian history, but it was
the Alcatraz Island occupation that ushered in a new era of Native
"The occupiers," writes Ben Winton in the Fall 1999 issue of Native
Peoples magazine, "were an unlikely mix of Indian college activists,
families with children fresh off reservations, and urban dwellers
disenchanted with what they called the U.S. government's economic,
social and political neglect."
"We hold The Rock," proclaimed Richard Oakes, a Mohawk from New York.
Oakes became the occupiers' spokesman… and his words became their
motto. "The occupation of Alcatraz was about human rights," said
Winton. "It was an effort to restore the dignity of the more than 554
American Indian nations in the United States."
Over the course of the occupation, over 5,600 American Indians took
part some for a day, some for the entire 18 months. Twenty-three
year-old John Trudell, a Santee Sioux from San Bernardino, California
heard about the occupation, packed a sleeping bag, and headed to San
Francisco. "He became the voice of Radio Free Alcatraz, a pirate
radio station that broadcast from the island with the help of local
stations" explains Winton. "When he hit the airwaves, the response
was often overwhelming. Boxes of food and money poured in from
everywhere from rock groups such as The Grateful Dead and Creedence
Clearwater Revival (who staged a concert on a boat off Alcatraz and
then donated the boat), Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando, city politicians,
and everyday folks." For the first time in modern American history,
the plight of Native Americans was making headlines.
The fledgling American Indian Movement (AIM) visited the occupiers
and soon began a series of their own occupations across America. AIM
would soon become a powerful multi-tribal protest organization… just
one of the many important outcomes of the Alcatraz takeover.
"Despite its chaos and factionalism, the event resulted in major
benefits for American Indians," Winton states. "Years later, Brad
Patterson, a top aide to President Richard Nixon, cited at least ten
major policy and law shifts." Some of those policy shifts include:
Passage of the Indian Self Determination and Education Act
Revision of the Johnson O'Malley Act to better educate Indians
Passage of the Indian Financing Act and the Indian Health Act
Creation of an Assistant Interior Secretary post for Indian Affairs
Even today, Alcatraz Island remains part of Native American culture.
Every November since 1975, on what is called "Un-Thanksgiving Day,"
Indians gather on the island to honor the occupation and those who
continue to fight today.