I was a little girl when we hosted the first Alcatraz Canoe Journey, the one before the pandemic, when the island was still a place where tourists paid money for tickets and a boat ride so they could walk around a prison where people who were famous for the bad things they did were kept in cages so small I wouldn’t leave a dog in there. Not even for an hour. Those tourists never knew what the Bay’s first people, the Ohlone, do: that Alcatraz was where spirits gather before passing through the Golden Gate into the beyond.
We brought Canoe Journey to Alcatraz and the Bay so people would know the history of the island, how it is the birthplace of the modern Indigenous rights movement. We did it hoping more good things would come for our people and the planet — simple changes like access to the Bay for Indigenous youth, and bigger transformations like making the Bay’s first people visible, centering Indigenous values and protecting Mother Earth.
I remember the morning of Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2019 like it was yesterday. That was when some of the parking meters still listed the holiday as Columbus Day, and there were still parking meters.
My dad and I got up at three, long before the birds, when the un-housed are the only ones out on Oakland’s streets. The ferry over to the island for Sunrise Ceremony was packed. A trio of hand drummers belted out the Women Warrior’s song. People were greeting old friends, smiling and hugging everywhere you looked. Little kids were running around underfoot. The line for the concession was longer than the ride over and back. Luckily, we got there early, so Dad had a coffee, and I had a hot chocolate with extra whipped cream. He carried the drum. I carried the blanket. Actually, I wrapped myself in the blanket because back then the island made me feel cold, inside and out. It was more than the chill in the air that’s present when the sun is still waking up. It was more than the wind off the water that blows hard around dawn on the Bay. It was a cold borne on the breath of souls trapped on the island. Even though the doors to their cells were no longer locked, those souls were still suffering, waiting to pass through the Gate and into the beyond.
The fire for the Sunrise Ceremony is on the south side of the island, around the back. We gather there twice every year, once in October for Indigenous Peoples’ Day and again in November for un-Thanksgiving. Dad sang a lot that morning, and I sang a little. It was so early. I was just seven, and I didn’t feel like making noise, just listening. As the sun rose, I could see cormorants flying away from the island as canoes headed toward it. There were so many canoes, so many people in regalia. Each canoe felt like a promise. I counted them over and over again. It was beautiful, and I was impatient to feel the water on my paddle.
It wasn’t easy getting Dad out of there. One person or another is always stopping him to say something that must be important to someone (not me). But we really needed to make it onto the first ferry back to the city. We’d been practicing for months. He was skipper. I was crew. And we were taking our canoe out on the Bay, over to the island as part of the first Alcatraz Canoe Journey.
I don’t want to tell you how he drove along the Embarcadero from the Pier to Aquatic Park. Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty. I remember thinking it might have been good to be back in a car seat for safety’s sake. But we made it, and in a way, our timing was perfect.
We were one of the last canoes on the beach to launch, which meant we went out right beside the Tule canoe — the first one on the Bay for as long as anyone could remember. Our Ohlone Grandmother, Ruth Orta, blessed our canoe to ensure a safe journey. It gave me a certain feeling that I still get sometimes, like pride but different because it’s about more than just me.
To set the record straight, I wasn’t the only one on crew. There were four of us kids in the canoe plus my dad. We took every stroke that morning together, counting off twelve pulls then switching sides and starting our count over again. Each pull was like brushing a mermaid’s hair, smoothing it out for a perfect fishtail braid. The Bay sparkled all around us like beads in sunshine. The water on my paddle reminded me of the strength in my body and the determination in my heart. Water is life. There is no doubt about that. Together, the five of us made it all the way around the island — through the choppy shipping lane between the island and the beach, through the quiet spot where the ferry snuggles into its dock, and through the waters full of promise where you can see and smell the open ocean roaring outside the Golden Gate — and back to the beach at Aquatic Park.