.New Day Rising

This Thursday, the Mexican Heritage Plaza holds its 10th annual Native UnThanksgiving Sunrise Ceremony, honoring the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and commemorating the 1969-1971 reclamation of Alcatraz. 

Aztec dance group Calpulli Tonalehqueh—which means “community of warriors who accompany the sun” in the Nahuatl language—will lead the Sunrise Ceremony, performing Aztec dances that were once outlawed and punishable by death during Spanish colonization of what is now Mexico. 

Yei Tochtli Mitlalpilli founded the Calpulli Tonalehqueh in 2004 after becoming a father. Sunrise Ceremonies, like the one performed at the UnThanksgiving celebration, are all about awareness and the transformative change necessary beyond one cold morning in November.

“It’s not so much what are we going to do that day, but what are we going to do today going forward?” Mitlalpilli says. “We can’t change the past, but we can change right now.”

After the 18-month reclamation of Alcatraz, many tribes began to perform sunrise ceremonies as a way to celebrate Indigenous heritage and raise awareness of the issues facing the community. The dawn gatherings also show solidarity with other tribes across the country who observe National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving in somber remembrance of Native Americans lost to colonization and genocide.

While the dances are not religious, Mitlalpilli says they are spiritual and connected to respecting land and nature. 

“There’s a respect for the elements: the fire, the water, the wind, the earth,” he says. “We’re not going to dance one day and then go pollute the water the next day. Everything’s connected.” 

Aquihua Perez, dancer and instructor in the Calpulli Tonalehqueh, is descended from the Caxcan and Wixarika nations of the southern Zacatecas. Perez says many Indigenous people still face the ongoing consequences of colonization including racism, over-policing and gentrification.

“As Native people, we continue to suffer the effects of the system similar to African-Americans or anybody else that is struggling with racism, with displacement, with gentrification,” Perez says. “Those are the things that we continue to fight against. To promote our cultural heritage allows us to come together as a community to support each other.”

Perez says he hopes to see Thanksgiving transform from a tradition which tacitly celebrates the genocide of Indigenous peoples with football and over-indulging, into a day of service and community which inspires lasting change.

That change, Perez says, needs to begin with a recognition of what Thanksgiving as it is celebrated today stands for. 

“You can’t ignore how this holiday came about, you have to understand the history of it,” he says.

Whether Indigenous or not, Perez encourages people to connect with their roots—as well as each other—in a way that is mindful of Thanksgiving’s sordid past, and to keep working towards a better future.

“There are so many ways that we can create unity, a sense of togetherness and a sense of purposefulness that can be so much more productive,” Perez says. “We continue to fight against this Thanksgiving narrative, and we want to do it in a way that honors our ancestors’ teachings—our own philosophy as Native people.”

Joseph Torres is a member of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, who are indigenous to the San Francisco Bay Area and descend from the Native peoples who persisted here after Spanish missionization. Torres is helping to revive his tribe’s dances after they were lost to colonization and forced assimilation. He and Perez both say that connecting with their culture through dance is a healing experience.

“We’re carrying that medicine,” Torres says. “It’s an old way that we’re reviving. Ancestral responsibilities are kicking in. I’ve been put in a sacred responsibility to bring back the dance.”

At a flag-raising ceremony for the Muwekma Ohlone tribe on November 6, Torres participated in the first Muwekma Ohlone ceremonial dances in over 150 years.

“It’s healing, it’s a beautiful thing to see,” Perez says. “We all have that DNA in us of our original ancestors. And once we begin to discover our own identity, that DNA is awakened. It is like a small explosion of energy and beauty.”

Sunrise Ceremony
Thu, 5am, Free
Mexican Heritage Plaza, San Jose


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