In the dark, usually drizzly, predawn hours of the fourth Thursday in November, thousands of people from all over the country gather on the San Francisco waterfront, clutching musical instruments and thick wool blankets, embracing rarely seen friends, and chanting quietly as they await the day's first boat. Drawn by laughter and thunderous drums, small dark birds glide out over the inky waters, trailing the boats like pickets to the inhospitable rock outcrop Native Americans once called Turtle Island. The group climbs the hill to an open plateau overlooked by penitentiary ruins. In the distance, the city twinkles, indifferent and opulent, while a great fire crackles on the cold ground. The Sundancers -- those purified by prayer, fasting, and ritual perforation -- form the first circle and everyone without a cigarette is given leaf tobacco to hold and burn during the ceremony.
Tibetan and Japanese Buddhist, Pomo, Hopi, Aztec, Maori, Potawatomi, Laplander, African, and empathetic witnesses bow their heads in prayer just as the first hues of pink spread across the sky. As the sun warms limbs and stone, there is dancing, song, and remembrance for all the great warriors and revolutionaries of the world. Each person adds his or her tobacco to the fire and the boats return to shore before the clock has struck 9 a.m., leaving time enough for potluck feasting at the Inter-Tribal Friendship House, or more traditional nibbling with the relatives. The Blue and Gold Fleet ticket booth at Pier 41 opens at 4 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 25; first ferry leaves at 5:15. Tickets are $8 (free under 5); call 641-4482.