The Indigenous Renaissance | Julian Brave Noisecat

This keynote talk was delivered at the 2019 Bioneers Conference.

The brilliant young writer, journalist and activist Julian Noisecat offers his insights into how, around the world, Indigenous peoples are rising in a global renaissance that holds untapped promise for a world in peril.

Julian Brave NoiseCat, Director of Green Strategy at the think tank Data for Progress, and “Narrative Change Director” for the Natural History Museum artist and activist collective, is also a correspondent for Real America with Jorge Ramos and a Contributing Editor at Canadian Geographic.

To learn more about Julian Noisecat, visit his website.

Read the full verbatim transcript of this keynote talk below.



Tsecwinucw-kp, which means good morning. [AUDIENCE RESPONDS] It actually literally translates as “you survived the night.” [LAUGHTER]

So at 6:00 in the morning on Monday, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I stood on the sandy shoreline of San Francisco’s Aquatic Park, as a 30-foot ocean-going canoe, hewn from cedar and crewed by a dozen members of the Nisqually tribe of Washington, pulled out into the breakwater, its bow pointed for Alcatraz Island. The Bay glistened in the first light of the sun as Nisqually voices rose in unison above the din of the waking city, their paddles stroking the water to the rhythm of their song.

On the beach, I hugged my dad and then my mom. We’d envisioned and organized and fundraised and planned for this moment for more than two years. On Monday, our vision became reality.

The Nisqually canoe was the first to depart on the Alcatraz canoe journey, an indigenous voyage around Alcatraz Island to honor and carry forward the legacy of the 1969 occupation led by Indians of all tribes 50 years later. The Nisqually were followed close behind by the Northern Quest, its hull crafted from strips of cedars and painted with the crest of the white raven. Its crew hailed from the Shxwhá:y Village in British Columbia, Canada. They were soon joined by an umiak, pulled by an intertribal group from Seattle, as well as a dozen other ocean-going canoes from the Northwest and outriggers from Polynesia, representing people as far flung as the Klahoose First Nation in Canada and the Kanaka Maoli in Hawaii. At final count 18 vessels representing dozens of tribes, nations, and communities pulled out into San Francisco Bay that morning.

One of the last canoes to depart was a tulle boat, fashioned from reeds gathered from local marshes. It represented the Ohlone, the First Peoples of these waters. Antonio Moreno, the captain and artist, who made the canoe, paddled his craft and canoe out into the open water, the tulle reed sidewalls of his vessel barely rising above the waves. Antonio and his courageous crew pulled to Alcatraz and touched the craggy shore. His was the only vessel to make landfall that day.

The visiting canoes meanwhile circumnavigated the island, paddling counter clockwise, from south to north and back to Aquatic Park. A local ABC station captured the scene from high overhead.

The Swisaloh from Squaxin Island paddles the Salish Sea. Photo credit: Patrick Braese

The late Richard Oaks, one of the leaders of Alcatraz, once said Alcatraz is not an island, it’s an idea. The idea was that when you came into New York harbor, you’d be greeted by the Statue of Liberty, but when you came through the Golden Gate, you’d encounter Alcatraz, a former federal prison reclaimed by Indians of all tribes as a symbol of our rights, our pride, and our freedom.

The Alcatraz occupation lasted 19 months, by the time it was over, the United States had shifted its official Indian policy from one of assimilation, relocation, and termination to one of self-determination and sovereignty.

It’s possible to draw a line from Alcatraz to Standing Rock, Bears Ears, Mauna Kea, and much more. But today the occupation, if it is remembered at all, remains an afterthought. Every year over 1.4 million people flock to Alcatraz, more than any other national park in the country, to peer inside jail cells that once held notorious criminals like the Bird Man and Al Capone. The island has become a monument to carceral nostalgia, to the Mafiosos and lawmen and convicts and fugitives, not to Native Americans.

But for a day, or maybe even just a morning, the canoes made it possible to see Alcatraz as what it could be, a symbol of indigenous rights, resistance, and persistence, an island reclaimed by our elders 50 years ago, an idea, a story, and a moment of organized action that changed history.

On Monday, Courtney Russell of the […] and Haida Nations and skipper of the Northern Quest was the first to return to San Francisco. She stood in her canoe and said, “We are the original caretakers of this land. We are still here. We will not be forgotten, and we will continue to rise.”

Ashore, 85-year-old elder Ruth Orta, Ohlone elder, Ruth Orta welcomed her and all the canoes. Orta later told KQED that she was so proud to see the young people, to see the young generation participate in learning what the older generation did, she said. I love it.

Then we gathered in Aquatic Park to share songs, dances, gifts and stories about what Alcatraz meant to our families and our people. Hanford McCloud, skipper of a Nisqually canoe spoke of his auntie, Laura McCloud, who joined the occupation when she was just a senior in high school. Sulustu Moses of the Spokane tribe shared the story of one of his ancestors, a warrior imprisoned on the island after an 1858 war. When he finished, he stood and sung the war chiefs death song.

Alcatraz is not an island, it’s an idea. And with a little imagination and a lot of work, that idea moved bodies, pulled hearts and changed minds. As our people and all people face devastating crises, catastrophic climate change, growing inequality, revanchist hate, maybe the power of audacious and enduring indigenous ideas like Alcatraz are exactly what we need.

Learn more about Alcatraz Canoe Journey here.

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