Richard Oakes (May 22, 1942 – September 20, 1972) was a Mohawk Native American activist who promoted the fundamental idea that Native peoples have a right to sovereignty, justice, respect and control over their own destinies. His legacy reflects the struggles of Native peoples and all people to maintain their land, identity, and lifeways.
Richard Oakes was born on May 22, 1942 in Akwesane, New York. He spent most of his childhood fishing and planting beans like many of his previous ancestors. Oakes started working at a local dock area, St. Lawrence Seaway, but unfortunately was laid off at the age of sixteen. It was then that Oakes decided to enter another profession. Oakes started working as a high steelworker, which was a job that entailed a great deal of traveling. While working on the Newport, Rhode Island Bridge, Oakes met and married an Italian/English woman from Bristol, Rhode Island. They had one son, Bryan Oakes was born in June 1968. Oakes left the two, divorcing his wife, and travelled west. Through his travels, Oakes reached San Francisco in the early 1960s. After arriving at San Francisco, he decided to enroll himself in college at San Francisco State University. While studying at SFSU, Oakes worked as a bartender at the Mission District of San Francisco which brought him in contact with the local Indian communities.
Oakes was disappointed in the classes that were offered and he went on to work with an Anthropology professor to change that. Oakes played an integral part in creating one of the first Native American studies departments in the nation. He developed the initial curriculum and encouraged other American Indians to enroll at San Francisco State University. At the very same time, the Mohawk National Council was forming and traveling in troupes to fight oppression of Mohawk religion by means of peaceful protest, which they called White Roots of Peace. Spring 1969, Oakes met the members of the White Roots of Peace who encouraged him to take a stand and fight for what he believed in. Oakes had also gained the support of many students. These two events proved to be the culmination of the Occupation of Alcatraz.
As a Mohawk Indian, Oakes was a strong supporter of Native American rights. He believed that Native American people have a right to their land and identity and that they deserve respect, justice and control.
In 1969, Oakes led a group of students and urban Bay Area Indians in an occupation of Alcatraz Island that would last until 1971. He also recruited 80 UCLA students from the American Indian Studies Center.
Many other tribes had already attempted to circle the island by boats but all were unsuccessful. When boats stopped during their course, Oakes chose to swim through the rest of the Bay and directly took control of the island. Indians of various tribes joined Oakes and staged the longest occupation of a federal facility by Indian people.
The historic occupation was made up initially of young Indian college students. Described as a handsome, charismatic, talented, and natural leader, Oakes was identified as leader of the island.
Oakes had control of the island from the very beginning, with an organizational council put into effect immediately. Everyone had a job, including security, sanitation, day care, schooling, cooking, and laundry. All decisions were made by the unanimous consent of the people.
The goals of the Indian inhabitants were to gain a deed to the island, establish an Indian university, cultural center, and museum.
In 1970 the island began to fall into disarray once Oakes' 13-year-old stepdaughter,Yvonne, fell to her death from concrete steps. After the fatality, Oakes left the island, along with numerous students who went back to school.
Conflicts over leadership and the influx of non-Indians diminished the important stance of the original occupants.
In June 1971 the United States government removed the remaining 15 occupants from the island.
While Oakes and his followers did not succeed in obtaining the island, they did affect U.S. policy and the treatment of Indians. As a result of the occupation, the official U.S. government policy of termination of Indian tribes was ended and replaced by a policy of Indian self-determination.
Shortly after leaving Alcatraz, Oakes continued his fight for the Native Americans. He helped the Pit River Tribe in their attempts to regain nearly 3 million acres of land that had been seized by Pacific Gas & Electric. Oakes also had many other plans to create more opportunities for Native Americans starting with his idea of an “mobile university.” But he was injured in a fight, having been hit in the head with a pool cue. He was in a coma for over 30 days, but made a recovery which friends credited to the appearance of his mentor Wallace Mad Bear Anderson of the Iroquois Confederacy.
Soon after that, however, Oakes was shot and killed by Michael Morgan, a YMCA camp manager. Morgan had a reputation for being rough with native children, and apparently was again in Oakes' presence. Oakes reportedly confronted him, and Morgan responded by drawing a handgun and fatally shooting him. Morgan was charged with involuntary manslaughter. Six months later, charges against Morgan were dropped on the grounds that Oakes had moved aggressively toward him. Oakes died on September 20, 1972 in Sonoma, California at the age of 30.
Oakes’ impact on government to create treaties and policies in favor of Native Americans was considerable.