Growing up on the Mohawk reservation in Akwesasne on the New York and Canada border, Richard Oakes learned from a young age about the respect his Native American people were due. When he was old enough to do something about it, he became a key figure in the American Indian rights movement—chiefly by occupying the dormant Alcatraz Prison. Take a look at five things you might not know about Oakes and his tragically brief struggle to reclaim his culture.
1. HE WAS A KEY FIGURE IN CREATING NATIVE AMERICAN STUDIES IN COLLEGES.
Born in 1942, Oakes moved to San Francisco in his late 20s to attend San Francisco State University. As a student, he found that the lethargic curriculum barely acknowledged the contribution Native Americans had made. Working with faculty, he helped develop and introduce one of the first Native American Studies departments in the country. Oakes and his fellow students also encouraged Native American elders from the community to come teach classes.
2. HE HELPED LEAD AN OCCUPATION OF ALCATRAZ ISLAND.
At SFSU, Oakes seemed to have found his calling in rallying both students and members of the Native American community. In order to draw attention to the need for further education and awareness of their forgotten history, Oakes and several others traveled to Alcatraz Island in November 1969 to symbolically claim it as Indian land.
3. HE BECAME “MAYOR OF ALCATRAZ.”
While it was initially intended to be a brief pronouncement, Oakes realized that the site of the dormant federal prison could actually support a long-term occupation. Students from UCLA helped make up the 100 or so American Indians who took up residence on the island. Once people were settled in, an elected council was put in place, and occupants took on a variety of jobs inside the abandoned prison facility: cooking, sanitation, teaching, housing, and day care. Oakes, a charismatic leader, was appointed the chief, or mayor, of the occupation, and demanded the deed to the island. Federal authorities wouldn’t relent: The occupation ended in 1971 after law enforcement ushered the remaining occupants off the land. (Oakes, whose 13-year-old stepdaughter had died there after she fell down the stairs in 1970, had already left.)
4. HE SUFFERED VIOLENCE AS A RESULT OF HIS BELIEFS.
After leaving Alcatraz, Oakes joined other American Indians in their struggle for equality. Aligning himself with the Pit River Tribe in California, he opposed utility companies that had been claiming their land for their own purposes. Oakes was victimized by tear gas and billy clubs. When he returned to San Francisco, he was involved in a bar fight that left him hospitalized.
5. HE WAS SHOT AND KILLED AT AGE 30.
Oakes undoubtedly had decades of activism and education ahead of him, but he never had the opportunity to experience them. On September 20, 1972, Oakes got into a confrontation with Michael Morgan, a YMCA employee who Oakes had alleged was mistreating the young Native American attendees Morgan was responsible for monitoring. During the argument, Morgan drew a firearm and shot Oakes, killing him. A jury later decided Morgan had been acting in self-defense. He was acquitted.
Despite the tragic end to his life, Richard Oakes accomplished a great deal on behalf of Native Americans. While he was unsuccessful in seizing Alcatraz, the occupation brought new attention to the cause: Hundreds of other protests were staged, and then-President Richard Nixon returned 48,000 acres of land to the Taos Indians. Today, the Richard Oakes Multicultural Center at San Francisco State University is dedicated to Oakes, who devoted his life to promoting the idea that Native Americans are in control of their own destiny.