Blueberry Muffins and Civil Disobedience

I don’t recall if I’ve written about this before, but one of my earliest coherent memories is one of civil disobedience. My sister Joanne and I are riding in the back of the family car, a powder blue Chevy, and my mother is driving faster than seems reasonable. We’re northbound on 101, and in my lap is an enormous bag of freshly-baked blueberry muffins. The scent and the temptation are almost irresistible, but the muffins are sacrosanct: they’re for the Indians.

You see, it’s Thanksgiving, 1969, and seven days earlier, a small flotilla of boats carrying Native American activists had crossed San Francisco Bay to occupy Alcatraz Island, staking their claim to it by US treaty. The Federal Government, unsurprisingly, took issue with the occupation and established a blockade in an attempt to starve the activists out. What my mother has explained to us was that there was a ship that was going to try to run the blockade, and we needed to get these muffins on that boat. As a young immigrant who had studied the customs of her adoptive land, she took the legends of the first Thanksgiving to heart. If Native Americans truly had fed the Pilgrims to get them through that first winter, how could we not now return that favor?

I remember sitting there, sliding back and forth in the back seat as my mother wove through traffic. I remember smell of fresh blueberry muffins, and clutching that shopping bag in my lap like it was the most important, most holy thing I had ever touched. The boat was supposed to leave any minute now – would we make it in time? And I remember a flurry of motion dockside, my mother handing the bag down to a man on deck preoccupied by greater concerns, but taking the time to acknowledge our little contribution to the cause.

I don’t know how many of these memories are faithful to the facts, but I have no choice but cling to them. We now know, of course, that the stories of that first Thanksgiving were hopelessly whitewashed. The 1969 occupation was also co-opted as the original idealists were replaced and overrun by drifters who’d outstayed their welcome from the Summer of Love. For many, it became less about native sovereignty and recognition of treaty rights, and more just another way to stick it to The Man. Drug use soared, idealism faded, and in June of 1971, a large force of Federal agents landed and forcibly removed the remaining occupiers.

Still, as a stone thrown into a pond leaves ripples that keep spreading long after it has disappeared below the surface, I’d like to think that the memory of this simple and obvious act of kindness has helped shaped my life. So on this Thanksgiving, almost half a century later, I wish you all the gift of gratitude for kindnesses received, and wish you all the eyes to see what kindness you might have in your power to give others. Whether or not it involves sticking it to The Man.

Here are some links, by the way, if you’re interested in learning more:

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