I’ve assumed that I would never step foot on Alcatraz Island. For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would like to look at a decaying old prison, a place of abject misery. Whoever was there had created misery (unless they were innocent, as some people probably were) and then lived out their lives in misery. And were any lessons learned from this? There are now more people in U.S. Prisons than ever. So… why is this a tourist attraction? I’m clueless on this one.

Be that as it may, I had heard about the annual Thanksgiving Sunrise Ceremony by Native Americans, but I had always thought, “Who would get up at four in the morning on Thanksgiving to go to this?”

I would, that’s who.

I mean, not the me who used to ask the question, but I in present time. Because as I exist now, if there’s something I’m interest in, I’m going to do it NOW as there may not be a next time. Life’s funny like that: you really can’t take anything for granted.

My Dream of StarsI had no less than a burning desire to attend this ceremony this year. I couldn’t get it off my mind. I tried several times to get K. to go but he would have none of it. He religiously believes that holidays are for sleeping in, and I would not be one to interfere with one’s adherence to one’s faith. I couldn’t really conceive of going alone until a co-worker asked me, half joking and not having ever spoke of this subject, “So, what are you doing for Thanksgiving this year? Going to Alcatraz?” Once I managed to bring my jaw back up I said, “Actually I’ve been thinking about it but K. doesn’t want to go…” “You should go, just go your self,” she answered. Hmm… Well, I thought, if I ever go to the ISS I would have to go without K. as he’s said he won’t go, so maybe I should see this as an warm-up exercise. Yes, I did actually think this. Because after reading My Dream of Stars by Anousheh Ansari, I’ve felt three things: 1) The training is too hard and I would never make it 2) Even if I had the money, I wouldn’t spend it on something so vain 3) Hey, she had an absurd fantasy of the Space Station and she got to go, so maybe somehow I can.

But, outside of fantasyland, as I contemplated buying my ticket to Alcatraz, I also mulled over the idea of Doing Things without K. Being that I’ve been alone most of my adult life, I got damn tired of doing things on my own. When K. and I got together I thought I would never have to do things alone again. That had not turned out to be the case. There are some trips I have taken alone since we’ve been together. I’ve come to realize now that not only trips to visit people may be without K., but also trips for adventure. I think K. would readily admit that I am the more adventurous one. I could turn around and ask him as he’s sitting on the papasan behind me, but I’ll just blithely make my assumptions and keep writing.

The forecast said that Thanksgiving day would be brutally, unnaturally cold do to climate change and some crazy air mass from Canada, but as much as I ABSOLUTELY DETEST THE COLD, I still bought my ticket. I slept badly, dreamed of oversleeping, did not oversleep, got up at 4:30, put on an absurd amount of layered clothing, and drove to San Francisco to catch the ferry.

Me and thousands of people.

sf at 6:50amI got there at 5:40 for my 6:00 boat, but found that I had to stand in a line hundreds of people long. I did not board a boat until 6:50 and landed moments before the sunrise. I was fortunate that one of the people standing in line in front of me was a passing acquaintance from Ladies Rock Camp, and she and her friends were nice enough to include me in their conversation for the duration of the wait. I found out a lot about what life is currently like for twenty-somethings in the Bay Area, which is to say, not much different than it was for me: lousy jobs for lousy pay, and painful insecurities. I felt very glad I wasn’t young. I also felt glad that I knew how to dress for winter as I seemed to be the only person in line who wasn’t cold.

alcatraz 6:50 amThe ferry ride, although short, was wonderful. I always think that San Francisco looks best from a distance, and I believe it looks its very, very best at dawn as seen from the Bay. When we landed, the first thing I noticed was the overwhelming scent of sage. The whole island smelled like sage. I raised up to the Parade Grounds, which is a place on top of the Island where the ceremony was taking place. The closer I got, the stronger the odor. When I got there, I saw why. There was a huge bonfire of sage, and the whole Parade Grands had a haze of smoke. I managed to squeeze into a spot just behind and to the left of speakers so I had a pretty good view. There were many good speakers and singers. There was a great song performed from a Maori man that blew everyone away. Then came the Aztec Dancers.

aztec dancersNow, before they Aztec Dancers came out there was issued several warnings not to take photos as their dance is a sacred prayer. So, I don’t have any photos. But you know how people are. They think they are excluded somehow, so they still take photos even when the stern looking AIM guy is looking right at them and telling them to stop. Man, that AIM guy looked like he was not one to mess with. People are seriously chutzpahdik. Apparently, though, predisposition to chutzpah is completely unrelated to talent, as the photos I found online under “aztec dancers alcatraz” are mediocre at best. One is pictured above here. I chose this one because he shows the insane amount of smoke. Evidently the sage smoke already permeating the entire island is unrelated to the smoke the Dancers need to help them with their dancing. They have their own incense that I, being an ignoramus, have no idea what it is but is smells even more pungent than the sage (I read it was “sweetgrass” somewhere, but don’t know what that is or if it’s true). Which is to say all this smells very good and also very strong.

This was where some real magic happened. I have seen Aztec Dancers before but not so many, with so many drums, during the sunrise, in a haze of smoke. There is an overused word, that if you could strip away its decades of overuse would convey the scene: AWESOME. I was really awestruck at the sight. The headresses are just huge and many have skull motives. One included an actual jaguars’ head. Another had an eagle’s skull and a small crocodile’s head. (pictured below) They were actually a bit frightening even to a grown logical adult like me. The drums were deafening and I was squeezed in between hundreds of people. I felt I could picture what it must of been life to have lived in the ancient Mayan culture. I imagine not a hundred but thousands of people doing these dancers, in unison, and how incredible it must have been. I couldn’t help but feel the spirituality inherent in this dance.

aztec dancer near indians welcome sign on alcatrazI thought afterward about the huge chasm between modern Western culture and ancient Indigenous tribal culture. I’m going to generalize, of course. In the culture I live in, life is incredibly compartmentalized. My friends, my family, my coworkers and other groups are all separate circles that rarely intersect. In any given day, I see more people I don’t know — passing by them on the street, or in their cars — than I do know. I see hundreds and hundreds of people a day that are strangers.

I imagine in a tribal culture, things would be less in tiny boxes. I imagine there would be more overlapping between work, friends, family. Also, everyone would more or less have the same spiritual beliefs. When I saw the ceremony on Alcatraz, that seems to be what would most bond people together as a large group. Life would be much more structured but more fluid and less fragmented.

Being who I am — an American, and a non-conformist at that — it would really be beyond me to be part of any group that was tribal in any way. It was interesting to witness it, and imagine it.

Yet that wasn’t even the most impressive part of the day. The most impressive part was the attitude of the Native Americans. Even though this is their ceremony, for their people, they are completely open and inviting to all. Every single person who addressed the crowd addressed us as “People of all tribes and all nations.” I have never witnessed any sort of ceremony who was so inclusive of people who were not part of the group nor ever would be. It was an amazing demonstration of open-mindedness The French actually call it open spirit (ouvert d’esprit), which I think is a better way to put it.

At the very end, Clyde Bellecourt said to the crowd, “I love each one of you.” And he meant it. I thought, wow, I wonder what that must feel like. It must feel really good.clyde bellecourt alcatraz 2010


2 Responses to “Sunrise on Alcatraz”

  1. E on November 30th, 2010 8:13 am

    That sounded amazing. I am glad you did it. I am also glad Clyde is still going strong. I haven’t seen him here in awhile. I do remember going to the service and holding hands in a big circle. I wish I could remember more – but you know my memory……I think I may have done it with T? could that be possible… Or maybe just S that seems more possible. Although it could be J too probably not R though!! Sad how this wonderful event has now been taken over by the crazy men that have been in my life.

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