Frigid air and wet ground did little to deter the 4,500 people who gathered before dawn on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay this Thursday for the annual Unthanksgiving Day. It has been 50 years since the 1969 Occupation of Alcatraz—regarded by many as the birthplace of the modern Native American rights movement—when Indians of All Tribes, a group of young activists, laid claim to the island with the hopes of building a community, spiritual, and ecological center staffed by Native people. Under 1868’s Treaty of Fort Laramie, unused federal lands were open to claims by certain Native Americans, and the prison on Alcatraz had recently been shut down and designated as “surplus” federal land.
The occupation lasted 19 months, and at its height, hundreds of people lived on the island, including several families. Already arduous conditions intensified when the government turned off the electricity and phone lines. Although the occupiers’ claims and proposals were denied, their protest helped end the termination laws that were taking tribes’ lands and attempting to negate their sovereignty. It also inspired acts of civil disobedience among indigenous people across the Americas.
Every year, indigenous people and supporters return to Alcatraz for a sunrise ceremony to honor their ancestors, foster community, and raise awareness about current indigenous struggles. “The first occupiers had every legal right,” says activist Pennie Opal Plant, who is of Yaqui, Mexican, Choctaw, Cherokee, and European ancestry, on the 4:15 a.m. ferry ride to the island for this year’s sunrise ceremony. “Where we were once invisible, we became very visible.” Her husband, Michael Horse, an actor and activist of the Yaqui tribe, describes the original occupation as “an awakening for a lot of us.”
Early Thursday morning, under a star-spotted sky, the crowd winds its way from the dock to an outdoor gathering place, forming a large circle around a bonfire. Representatives from the Stand with Standing Rock and Protect Mauna Kea protests number among the 18 speakers who address the crowd, along with six dance groups. Lenny Foster, a Diné spiritual advisor to incarcerated Native Americans who was present at the first occupation, implores non-indigenous people to “continue to support our resistance, [and] make every effort to raise your level of consciousness.”
“The land is still here and so are the indigenous people,” offers Liko Martin, one of the Protect Mauna Kea representatives. “We are one world, one people—we should gather around the same fire and protect the same water. We are one heart, one breath, one life.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue