As part of the Tribal Canoe Journeys on Indigenous Peoples Day, groups of Native Americans and their allies paddled to Alcatraz.3/7 SLIDES © Delilah Friedler
Remembering the time Native Americans created a village on Alcatraz4/7 SLIDES © Paul Chinn, The Chronicle
Remembering the time Native Americans created a village on Alcatraz5/7 SLIDES © Robert W. Klein, ASSOCIATED PRESS
Remembering the time Native Americans created a village on Alcatraz6/7 SLIDES © Robert Klein, ASSOCIATED PRESS
Remembering the time Native Americans created a village on Alcatraz7/7 SLIDES © Anonymous, ASSOCIATED PRESS
Remembering the time Native Americans created a village on Alcatraz7/7 SLIDES
The first ferry to Alcatraz usually leaves at 8:45 a.m. But when the earliest guests arrived at the island on Indigenous Peoples Day, they weren’t visiting for a tour of the famed prison.
Groups of Native Americans and their allies paddled to one of the Bay’s most iconic landmarks today for a sunrise ceremony honoring the island’s 1969 occupation by a group called Indians of All Tribes. Arriving in traditional canoes, they chanted, sang songs and eventually circled the island in their boats in tribute to the occupiers.
Since 1989, Indigenous canoe-builders, navigators, and paddlers from tribes in the Pacific Northwest and beyond have converged on the coasts of Washington and British Columbia for an annual event called Tribal Canoe Journeys, part of a global “canoe movement” that’s breathing new life into Indigenous modes of seafaring.
The event was held in San Francisco for the first time to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz, a landmark activist stand credited with ending a dark period for Native American rights and inspiring a chain reaction of Indigenous activism that continues to this day (you can flip through the incredible photos from the occupation in the slideshow above).
Kanyon Sayers-Roods, 31, a familiar face at Bay Area Native events, was instrumental in bringing Canoe Journeys home to California. As a Mutsun Ohlone, she belongs to a southern band of the Ohlone people who are indigenous to much of the land surrounding the Bay. In 2018, Sayers-Roods traveled to Tacoma, Wash. to extend a formal invitation for the event to happen near her traditional territory.
She planned today’s event with a committee including Eloy Martinez, 79, a Southern Ute veteran of the Alcatraz occupation, and Julian Brave NoiseCat, an Oakland-born writer and organizer of Secwepemc and St’at'imc descent. NoiseCat said the paddle was intended to “reclaim Alcatraz not as a symbol of incarceration, but as liberation.”
“This gathering is the start of something beautiful,” Sayers-Roods said. “It’s a way to share with the community the cultural resilience of Indigenous peoples.”
The Bay Area’s first peoples were ravaged by disease and brutal violence during their initial colonization by the Spanish, who enslaved many Natives and worked some to death at nearby Catholic missions. Tribes didn’t fare much better under the Americans, who punished Natives for speaking their languages and practicing their traditions.
On display at today’s event was a freshly built Ohlone-style canoe, handmade from a buoyant local plant called tule—a living testament to the Indigenous lifeways that have endured against all odds.
Starting in the 1950s, federal relocation programs prompted a mass migration of Natives from reservations into cities. The Bay Area was one of the main destinations, and today is home to about 50,000 Native Americans from all across the continent.
During the ’60s, an intertribal community emerged around the San Francisco Indian Center, in a time of cultural renaissance and political radicalization. When the center burned down in October 1969, it prompted a group of 89 activists, many of them students, to board boats on the Bay and sail to Alcatraz, where the federal prison had recently been decommissioned.
Thousands of Natives and their allies flocked to Alcatraz, creating a village that offered communal meals, childcare and schooling. The resulting media coverage raised the profile of Indigenous people and the hardships they were facing under federal “termination” policies, which targeted their political rights and social programs. Eight months into the occupation, President Nixon announced an end to the termination. Millions of acres were returned to tribes, and self-determination policies gradually took root.
Honoring that victory today were Natives ranging from children to elders, some who came from as far as Hawaii and Canada. Deborah Alexander, 59, came from the Nooksack Indian Reservation, just south of the Canadian border, to paddle in the Shxwhá:y Village canoe with relatives from British Columbia.
Alexander has been canoeing for about 40 years, but said the trip around Alcatraz was something special. “I was in awe,” she said. “You could almost feel the people who were once there, their energy. It was very spiritual for me.”
The canoe journey was the first in a series of events centered on the occupation’s 50th anniversary. The SF Public Library, the Presidio Trust, and the Exploratorium will co-host a speaker series called “Alcatraz: An Unfinished Occupation,” and Julian Brave NoiseCat will work with Alcatraz veteran LaNada War Jack to edit a special issue of SFMOMA’s Open Space magazine.
San Francisco lawmakers voted in 2018 to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, following a nationwide trend that is re-framing the explorer’s legacy as one of violence and colonization. Over the weekend, a statue of Christopher Columbus in San Francisco was vandalized the day before the federal holiday.
As canoes returned to the Aquatic Park beach, paddlers offered humble greetings in their traditional languages, including a welcome to “Yelamu,” the Indigenous name for San Francisco.
A young woman in the Shxwhá:y Village canoe stood up and honored the memory of her great-grandmother, for whom the canoe was named. “If I had one message for everyone to hear, it’s that we are still here. And we are still fighting.”
Delilah Friedler is a freelancer writer and editorial fellow at Mother Jones.