San Francisco • Eight-year-old Alan Harrison was sound asleep on Nov. 20, 1969, when he was roused from bed at 2 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 Quitiquit, 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 (President Richard) Nixon called off the military, and all the celebrities and others were donating large amounts of food, clothing and other supplies ... we kids were pretty much free to roam about the island,” he told Indian Country Today.
Harrison described his time on Alcatraz as “a time of total freedom.”
But 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.
“Actually, the school on the island was better than what I came back to off the island,” Harrison said.
The children also learned American Indian history, did beadwork and art projects and listened to adults like Santee Dakota activist John Trudell sing traditional songs. “Any specialty that the adults knew, they taught to us,” he said.
When he returned to school on the mainland, his teacher announced that he had been on Alcatraz, and his classmates 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 his time spent playing with friends and walking 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. They also hiked around the island and collected crabs from the water and let them go.
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,” he said. “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.”
People began to leave, and the government removed a barge that held drinking water for the occupiers.
“Without water, none of us could survive for very long,” Harrison said. “Also, we knew when we dropped down to only 40 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.”
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,” he said.
In addition, the Mattel company donated bikes, dolls, matchbox cars and other new toys. “For the kids, it was a great Christmas.”
While on Alcatraz, Harrison’s mother met Eduardo Castillo, professor and noted author. They eventually moved to Riverside, where Castillo taught.
“Ed was one of the first to spearhead the push for Ethnic Studies,” Harrison said. They moved back to Berkeley when he became a professor at the University of California Berkeley.
“Ed and my mom continued in their activism to convince the UC system to initiate Ethnic Studies and American Indian Studies into formal curriculum,” he said. Harrison graduated from Berkeley High School.
His 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.
The mother and son relived their memories from 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 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 19 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.”