Alcatraz was 'total freedom' for a kid

Alan Harrison laughs at memories he has of running up and down the stairs behind him. As children they had the run of the island. "It was freedom," he said. (Photograph by Patty Talahongva, Indian Country Today)

Nanette Deetz

Climbing the lighthouse during the day and listening to John Trudell sing are Alan Harrison's memories of Alcatraz #Alcatraz50 #RedPower50

Eight-year-old Alan Harrison was sound asleep on November 20, 1969, when he was roused from bed at two in the morning by his mother.

“She told me that we were going camping. I loved camping, so we grabbed our sleeping bags, fishing poles and were really happy about it,” Harrison said. “We got on a boat that left from Sausalito. When we arrived, my mom took us to the warden’s office because it was the only room that was carpeted, and she didn’t want us sleeping on the concrete.”

Harrison was one of the first children brought to Alcatraz during the occupation. His mother, Luwana Quititquit, was from the Pomo and Moduc tribes at Robinson Rancheria, Clearlake, California.

Now 58, he can still remember the reaction of the officials who met the original occupiers once they landed. “The only people left on the island was the caretaker and his wife and one man who was responsible for the lighthouse. When they saw all of us gathered together they said, “Alcatraz is being invaded by the Indians.”

Days later the group would celebrate Un-Thanksgiving.

“By the time of Thanksgiving, there were at least 400 of us gathered. Once Nixon called off the military, and all the celebrities and others were donating large amounts of food, clothing, and other supplies kept arriving, we kids were pretty much free to roam about the island, “ he said. Harrison described his time on Alcatraz as, “a time of total freedom.”

The kids did more than just play all day. Stella Leach organized the school on Alcatraz.

There were plenty of books due to all the generous donations. The kids were taught English, math, and most subjects that any kids would learn at age 8 or 9.

“In addition we got to do beadwork, lots of painting and art projects, any specialty that the adults knew, they taught to us. Actually the school on the island was better than what I came back to off the island. We got to learn actual American Indian history, and every night we heard John Trudell singing Lakota songs while Blue Cloud drummed for him. I do remember that when I returned to school on the mainland, when my teacher announced that I had been on Alcatraz, all the kids stood up and clapped. I was really surprised by their reaction, because we were so totally isolated out there as kids. The adults knew about all the positive publicity, and help from celebrities, but we kids didn’t.”

Harrison remembered fondly the memories of playing with his friends.

“We used to walk around the area where the prison guards had a catwalk. There were maybe nine of us together, and we would walk around the edge of it. Most of it was rusted through, but it was our little “follow the leader” game to see how brave we were,” laughed Harrison. “During low tide, we all gathered crabs, and enjoyed hiking around the island.

But not every memory is a happy one. He also remembers the tragedy around the accidental death of Yvonne Oakes.

“Yvonne was about 12 years old, and she and the other kids her age all played together. One of their favorite games was to spit from the third floor of a building because when it hit the bottom, it would create a really cool sound that echoed. All of us kids enjoyed the game. It was really tragic when she leaned over too far and I guess just slipped over the railing. It was a terrible accident, and then when Richard Oakes left Alcatraz soon after, everything just diminished,” he said. “People began to leave. Actually the final reason we all left was because they took away the large barge where all our drinking water was stored. Without water none of us could survive for very long. Also we knew when we dropped down to only forty people, it would be easy to round us up and take us off forcibly. People needed to get back to their jobs and school, and their lives.”

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Alan Harrison says they would collect crabs from the water and would let them go. "They were too small to eat." he said. (Photograph by Patty Talahongva, Indian Country Today)

First Christmas

Harrison spoke with joy about the first Christmas on Alcatraz. 

“At first I thought it would really be terrible because no one could leave the island. The water was too rough. But because the publicity had already gone to media sources, people had donated clothing, shoes, pants, jackets, and tons of toys for us. There were “hot wheels”, bikes, dolls for the girls, plenty for everyone.The Mattel Company donated all the toys, still in their plastic wrapping, For the kids it was a great Christmas.”

While on Alcatraz, Alan’s mother met Eduardo Castillo, professor and noted author. They would eventually move to Riverside, California where Castillo taught. “He and my mother continued in their activism. Ed was one of the first to spearhead the push for Ethnic Studies. When he became a professor at UC Berkeley, we moved back to Berkeley and Ed and my mom continued in their activism to convince the U.C. system to initiate Ethnic Studies and American Indian Studies into formal curriculum. I then graduated from Berkeley High School.”

Harrison’s mother became an honored member of the California Basket Weavers Association. She studied with the late Mabel McKay, Elsie Parrish, and others. Quitiquit had an art gallery called . Pomo Fine Arts in Lucerne, California.

The mother and son relived the memories of living on Alcatraz throughout her life. He says she was an excellent artist and could make jewelry, dolls and baskets fast. “I was very proud of my mother’s courage, intelligence, and creativity.” He says she always relied on him to help her, and he knows she was very proud of him for going out to Alcatraz with her.

“What I learned from my time on Alcatraz, was that if you believe in something, or want any type of change, you must be willing to do it yourself, and to stand up for what you believe in,” he said. “We all learned important lessons about survival, courage, and how to make something happen when things look pretty hopeless, as they had on reservations for decades.”

Five decades later Harrison reflects on his place in history.

“I have so many great memories of my time during those nineteen months,” he said. “It is fun to see some of the original occupiers again, hear stories, and make connections. It was like living the dream all over again.”

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(Image: Indian Country Today)

Nanette Deetz is Dakota/ Cherokee/German. Follow her on Facebook at Nanette Deetz and nanettedeetz75@gmail.com

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