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Know the West

A canoe journey to Alcatraz on Indigenous Peoples’ Day

The event celebrates the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco Bay island’s occupation.


On Oct. 14, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, an estimated 1,000 people from the U.S. and Canada participated in the Alcatraz Canoe Journey on Huichin territory in present-day San Francisco Bay. It was the first Indigenous event to take place at Alcatraz Island since Native American activists occupied it 50 years ago to fight for Indigenous peoples’ rights. The 1969 takeover lasted 19 months and ended with the forcible removal of the protesters by the federal government.

The commemoration centered around the canoe journey, an action designed to honor and celebrate Indigenous peoples’ rights. Nineteen families from the U.S. and Canada, in 18 32-foot-long canoes, paddled from San Francisco’s Aquatic Park out to Alcatraz Island. Some of the people in one group, the Northern Quest Canoe Family, drove from Chilliwack, British Columbia — over 900 miles — to be a part of the journey. For Cortney Russell, chief of the Northern Quest Canoe, the event was deeply personal. “If we don’t continue what our ancestors fought so hard for us to have, then it’s almost disrespectful to our ancestors and elders,” Russell explained. “We are still here, we will not be forgotten, and we will continue to rise.”

Hanford McCloud, a Nisqually tribal council member, says that one of the canoe journey’s purposes was to transport messages from the ancestors. “They wanted to make sure that not only did you hear that message, but you’re listening,” McCloud says. “Because you will hear something from your ancestors during that time, on that water, in that canoe. That’s what we’re going to bring here — that’s what was asked to bring here — to share that message.” McCloud participated in the Alcatraz Canoe Journey. 

The Canoe Journey of Alcatraz was one of three events to honor and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Alcatraz Occupation, with two more events scheduled in November.

Jolene Yazzie is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email her at [email protected]