The snapping chill that drives dawn is yet two hours away, and the city is buried in the placid warmth of night, quiet but for the murmur of rainwater sliding along the curbs. It is Thanksgiving morning and, but for a steady stream of headlights traveling along the Embarcadero, the city is inert.
The automobiles -- mostly small trucks with camper shells and mud-splattered fenders -- bear license plates from all over the country: Washington, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Arizona ... nearly every state is represented. The drivers behave as if they know each other -- they behave as if they know me -- waving through their fogged windshields and offering toothy grins unbefitting the hour. It is evident everyone on the road is heading in the same direction, toward the same location, and when we arrive, there is no mistaking it.
Blue-white light gluts the ticket booth at Pier 41, forming a fluorescent island that seems to hover above the promenade. Silhouettes press against the glass like moths drawn to the four cashiers locked inside. The employees of the Blue and Gold Fleet work furiously to issue boarding passes in time for the next departing ferry, but it is no use. There is a line of thousands. The people stretch farther than the cashiers can see, out of light's reach, past the charred remnants of a brick archway that frames only stars, down the sidewalk, until they are absorbed by pre-dawn darkness.
"The 5:30 ferry is nearly full," announces a rich, disembodied voice. "If you haven't got your tickets, get them now."
The crowd shifts uneasily.
"Drove here all the way from Washington," says a man with high, round cheekbones and long, black hair, "only to oversleep an hour. What a silly man. I should've been here at 3. I should've slept in the parking lot. Foolishness. Foolish, foolish, foolish."
The soliloquy of self-deprecation is cut short by a greeting from a mountainous man with the state of Nevada embroidered on his jacket. "Happy Unthanksgiving, you old goat!" says the mountain to the goat. The two men embrace. Down the line, other seldom-seen friends exchange hugs and hellos. Some exchange gifts. The Sun-Rise Gathering, a ceremony held on Alcatraz Island to commemorate its 19-month occupation by the American Indian Movement in 1969, is not a powwow. But, for spotting old friends, it's nearly as good.
"You will see faces here that you will not see elsewhere," says Daniel Jemez, an Oto from New Mexico. "People who are not always active, but who support the stand that we took here against government oppression and injustice. It is an impor-tant thing to take part in, a reminder to everyone of the lies perpetrated by revisionist history."
The first of many ferries slips away from the dock, slicing through ink-black bay water toward what the Native Americans call Turtle Island. On board, the smell of burning sage fills the cabin, and thunderous drum circles, engendered by groups of formidable men, shake each floor. A time-worn song flows out onto the deck, where the well-coiffed teens have gone to flirt and the smaller children have gone to peer at the approaching search tower. As the ferry nears Alcatraz, a night bird glides away from the island, letting out an eerie wrenching call. It's almost too exquisite, a flying cliche.
On the rock, the first ferry load gathers around AIM Ministry of Culture's Floyd Redcrow Westerman. Above our heads, the phrases "Indians Welcome" and "Indian Land" peek through the white paint on an old prison building.
"They tried to paint over it once, but it won't stay hidden," laughs Westerman. "We just keep coming back, and Turtle Island remains in our moral and spiritual possession." The crowd answers appreciatively with drums and ululation. We are told that next year marks the 30th anniversary of the occupation.
"It will be like the Wailing Wall," says former Stanford professor Cal Fastwolf. "Very powerful. Everyone will come. But before you do, read everything written by Standing Bear and Black Elk, then you will know something and be able to ask questions."
We are told to remember the massacre of 700 Pequot Indians during their Green Corn Dance in Massachusetts in 1637, and the resulting feast enjoyed by the conquerors. "It was early day ethnic cleansing," says Westerman. "They ate to a job well done."
We are told to open a cigarette and pour the tobacco in the palms of our hands for the duration of the two hours of prayer. We are told to pray for our ancestors, the warriors who came before us. We are told to pray for our relatives and for the warriors living all over the world who battle oppression.
We are told to pray for American Indian rights activist Leonard Peltier who has been behind bars for the last 23 years.
Following several drummers, those gathered thread their way up the hill, clutching tobacco in their palms and singing through puffs of early morning breath. An inviting fire blazes on the first plateau -- a tremendous expanse of cement that once served as an exercise yard. Young Pomo Indian dancers stand along the perimeter, shirtless and barefoot on the ice-cold concrete. Along the upper ridge, below the sweeping lamp of the watch tower and the yawning windows of the penitentiary ruins, a group of National Park and Recreation employees lean against a walkway railing watching. The city shimmers in the distance like a decadent tiara. As the circle closes around the fire, pale light creeps over the horizon.