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Indigenous Peoples' Day Events Mark 50 Years Since Alcatraz Occupation

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – The Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island 50 years ago was commemorated with multiple events Monday, which has been declared Indigenous Peoples' Day in San Francisco.

About 1,700 people ferried over for a sacred ceremony at sunrise on the island. Organizers said Monday's event commemorates 527 years of indigenous resistance and survival in the Americas, and honors the cultural resiliency of indigenious peoples in California and around the world.

The event also celebrated the occupation of Alcatraz by Native Americans from 1969 to 1971. The occupation was in protest of federal policies toward American Indians, to demand reparations for native lands seized by the U.S. government, and that the island's shuttered federal prison facilities be converted into an Indian education and cultural center.

Native American groups also claim Alcatraz Island belonged to indigenous peoples thousands of years Europeans came to North America.

"My family members were original occupiers, those were my teachers and educators growing up," tribal and community liaison Morning Star Gali told KPIX 5. "And so to be able to help to coordinate the event for the past 11 years now is really an honor."

The morning's events were somber, respectful and sacred. It was also about raising the profile on the issues indigenous peoples face, such as global climate change.

"Rising up, standing up together and saying no. We need to stop fossil fuels at the source," said Faith Gemmill of the International Indian Treaty Council. "We need to wean ourselves as a country from using dirty fossil fuels, because that is the human cause of global climate change."

Those who weren't physically at Alcatraz were remembered as well. A tipi was placed and dancers performed to honor more than 5,700 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in the United States.

Alcatraz Indigenous Peoples' Day
A red tipi symbolizing indigenous peoples' missing or killed stood on Alcatraz Island during an Indigenous Peoples' Day ceremony on October 14, 2019. (CBS)

Also on Monday, the occupation is also being commemorated with a canoe journey around the island.

The Alcatraz Canoe Journey began at 6 a.m. Monday at San Francisco Aquatic Park.

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Canoes representing tribes from around the West Coast were expected to participate. Participants are coming from as far away as Hawaii and British Columbia, organizers said.

"Canoe Journey is Indian Country's fastest growing tradition," said activist and event organizer Eloy Martinez, who was an early participant in the 1969 occupation. "We expect hand-carved dugout canoes, tule canoes-all kinds of traditional canoes. The canoes will leave from Aquatic Park, navigate the often-dangerous water around Alcatraz, and return to shore for a day full of songs, stories and dances by participating canoe families and other Native communities."

The canoe event is the first of its kind in the Bay Area and is inspired by the Tribal Canoe Journey held in the Pacific Northwest.

Organizers hope the event inspires a new generation of leaders as well as educating the public about the Alcatraz occupation "and the enduring importance of First Peoples in the context of global environmental crisis."

The Alcatraz Canoe Journey set out at 6 a.m. from Aquatic Park in San Francisco. Cultural protocol will begin at 7 a.m. and conclude at 1 p.m. This event is free, open to the public and inclusive.

A four-part speaker series, "Alcatraz: An Unfinished Occupation," is scheduled in conjunction with the canoe journey, under the sponsorship of the California Historical Society, the Exploratorium, the Natural History Museum, the Presidio Trust, the San Francisco Museum Modern of Art and the San Francisco Public Library.

Locations and dates of the speaker series are available at

© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Bay City News Service contributed to this report.

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