Unthanksgiving Day serves as a reminder of the 1969 Alcatraz Occupation and aims to dispel the traditional Thanksgiving mythology
By Kiera O’Hara-Heinz
With Thanksgiving marking the start of the holiday season, a few things may come to mind. Pie, maybe? Or presents? How about protests? While many of us likely spent Thanksgiving day feasting on turkey, a very different celebration was taking place on Alcatraz Island. Unthanksgiving Day is an annual event that honors Indigenous peoples of the Americas and commemorates the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island by Indigenous activists.
The sunrise ceremony is attended annually by local community members, Native American activists, and representatives from many different social action groups and tribes. Attendees gather to acknowledge the survival and the genocide of Native American’s following European colonization, and the event serves as a counter-celebration for the traditional American Thanksgiving which celebrates the story of Pilgrims sharing a meal with members of the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts.
A similar type of ceremony, the National Day of Mourning, takes place on the East Coast in Plymouth Massachusetts. The National Day of Mourning acknowledges the past and present struggles of Native people and aims to dispel the Thanksgiving mythology.
Saturday, November 20th marked the 52nd anniversary of the beginning of the Alcatraz Occupation where Native American activists and supporters lived on the island to protest the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which promised that unused and abandoned federal lands would be returned to the Natives that the land belonged to. The occupation is remembered as one of the most important events in modern Native American history and in the American Indian civil rights movement.
The Occupation started in 1969 and lasted 19 months, ending in June 1971 when the protest was forcibly ended by the United States government. Hundreds of people occupied the island including families, who sought to turn the former prison into a Native American cultural center. The protestors faced many obstacles at the hands of the United States government who cut electrical service and telephone lines.
The proclamation of the occupiers, who organized themselves under the name Indians of All Tribes, hoped that the reclamation of Alcatraz would serve as a symbolic reminder of the oppression faced by Native people at the hands of colonizers.
“It would be fitting and symbolic that ships from all over the world, entering the Golden Gate, would first see Indian land, and thus be reminded of the true history of this nation,” the proclamation stated. “This tiny island would be a symbol of the great lands once ruled by free and noble Indians.”
Though the occupation was eventually forcibly ended, it is still celebrated as a success for bringing increased attention to the plight of Indigenous peoples. The legacy of this peaceful protest lives on in the annual celebration on Alcatraz island.
Melanie Moyer '22,