Gown & Town: Students head to Alcatraz

November 30, 2012 

In the early hours of Nov. 22, most of Merced was fast asleep. Porch lights hummed quietly, as the inhabitants of the homes they lined gained their much-needed beauty sleep in preparation for the culinary marathon that was to come.

Soon enough, these homes would be buzzing with the lively energy that only the holiday season can bring.

However, a handful of Merced College students were wide awake, ready to take part in a slightly different holiday tradition. The students, led by professor and Blue Devil Report advisor Victor Smith, were making their way to Alcatraz for the Indigenous Sunrise Ceremony.

Once dubbed "Un-Thanksgiving," the ceremony was first held in 1975 to protest the typical Thanksgiving Day celebration and honor the American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz, which took place from 1969 to 1971.

In the 37 years since its inception, the event has evolved into a way to pay homage to the rich history of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and promote their rights. The event included keynote speakers, traditional dancers and musicians.

Several hundred gathered at San Francisco's Pier 33 to wait for boats to take them to the ceremony. The boats began departing for the island around 4:30 a.m., and activities kicked off at 6 a.m.

The next two hours would be a dynamic celebration of the culture of the indigenous people of the Americas, culminating just as the sun started to peek through the bay fog.

Merced College international student Firdavs Torres described the atmosphere as captivating, despite the early start time and cold weather. "Once we got to the island it was totally different world where the songs of ancient Indian tribes were heard everywhere and you could feel the anxiety of the upcoming event through the eyes of the Indian people."

This year, the ceremony featured traditional dance performances from the Aztec, Pomo and Pacific Island communities, complete with dancers donning traditional garb.

Musical accompaniment was offered by Native American musician and Bay Area fixture Jeremy Goodfeather as well as a native drum group based in Oakland -- All Nations Singers.

The event featured three speakers: Radley Davis of California's Pit River tribe, Len Foster of the Dine (Navajo Nation) of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, and Alyssa Macy, who represented the Wasco tribe of Oregon and the Hopi tribe of Northeastern Arizona.

"I think one of the most memorable speeches of the ceremony was the speech by representative of Indian village in Oregon," recalled Torres of Macy's speech.

Macy urged all the Native Americans to band together and advocate for their rights to land. "With tears in her eyes, she was talking about the harsh conditions of living in their village and the land disputes with the local government."

Merced College student Javier Lomeli said the event shed light on the strong bonds of unity among the indigenous tribes, adding that he enjoyed how the various groups communicated with the crowd.

"I got to experience firsthand their traditions and the messages they were trying to get across to their audience through music, dance and speech. It was a great experience."

Montse Reyes is a sophomore at Merced College majoring in sociology.

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