Rethinking Thanksgiving at 400 Years: A Native Perspective

Suzanne Potter | California News Service
Native American tribes meet on Alcatraz on Thanksgiving morning each year to draw attention to the loss of native lands. Photo Credit: Annelise Velazquez

ALCATRAZ ISLAND, Calif. — Some 400 years ago in 1621, the settlers and Native tribes ate together at the first Thanksgiving meal. But many tribes see this seminal date in American history as a day to mourn the losses of Native American lives and land that followed.

This Thanksgiving, it is estimated 5,000 to 6,000 people attended the annual Sunrise Gathering on Alcatraz, to honor the 19-month occupation of the island by Native American activists from 1969 to 1971.

Morning Star Gali, coordinator of the Alcatraz Sunrise Gathering and California community and tribal liaison for the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC), which advises the United Nations on tribal issues, explains the idea behind the event.

“We celebrate this day as a day of healing, as a day of truth-telling,” Gali stated. “It’s a day of resistance to the exploitation that Indigenous peoples are continuing to fight.”

The IITC is also promoting a campaign, “Gold, Greed and Genocide,” drawing attention to the legacy of the Gold Rush. Miners moving West brought diseases that devastated the native population.

Gali said to heal, California must come to terms with all aspects of its history. She noted at one time, the state actually targeted Native Americans for extinction, paying out $1 million for scalping expeditions in 1851.

“There was this onslaught of bounty hunters that were chasing through our people and massacring our villages,” Gali emphasized. “We were force-marched off of our land between the 1830s and 1860s. And so, California Indian leaders were imprisoned on Alcatraz Island.”

Native American advocates have also campaigned for the removal of statues of Father Junipero Serra in cities up and down the California coast. They argued the mission system Serra oversaw enslaved, relocated or killed hundreds of thousands of Indigenous Californians.