'We're Still Here': Canoe Journey to Alcatraz to Remember the Native American Occupation 50 Years Ago

14 min
A tule boat preparing for a sail around Alcatraz Island on Oct. 14, 2019 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Native American occupation at Alcatraz. (Alice Woelfle/KQED)

On Monday, Native people from across the West Coast gathered in San Francisco for a ceremonial canoe journey to Alcatraz Island. Each canoe represented a territory, tribe, community or family. They paddled to celebrate culture and values on Indigenous Peoples' Day, and to commemorate the 1969 Occupation of Alcatraz.

"It's honoring the Native people. They took care of the earth and we're still here," said Ruth Orta, an elder with the Him're-n Ohlone tribe. "We haven't gone anyway."

The Occupation of Alcatraz started on Nov. 20, 1969 with a group who called themselves the Indians of All Tribes.

"We feel that if we are going to succeed, we must hold on to the old ways," read the Indians of All Tribes' call to action. "This is the first and most important reason we went to Alcatraz Island."

Their movement lasted 19 months and gave visibility to broken treaties and a calls for self determination for Native people. The historic event of activism is recognized as one of the most important actions in contemporary Native American history that made strides for American Indian civil rights.

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"The idea was to have cultural centers," said Eloy Martinez, a Southern Ute tribe elder who participated in the occupation in 1969. "The idea was for sovereignty, education. All those things that seemed easy for other people to get that we never have. Those were the things that the idea was about."

Native families set off on Monday in canoes from San Francisco's Aquatic Park and paddled out and around Alcatraz Island. Before returning, each family requested permission from Ohlone elders, in tradition, to come ashore.

To learn more about the canoe journey to Alcatraz and hear history of the occupation, listen to this episode by clicking the play button above or finding this episode on your favorite podcast app.

Subscribe to The Bay to hear more local, Bay Area stories like this one. New episodes are released Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 3 a.m.  Find The Bay on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, NPR One, or via Alexa.

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