Richard Oakes (1942–1972), a Mohawk who was born on the St. Regis Reservation in New York, helped plan and implement the 1969 American Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island. His eloquence and commanding presence, his pivotal role in the takeover of Alcatraz, his development of a curriculum for the American Indian Studies Department at San Francisco State University, and his involvement in other protests in support of the Pit River and Pomo Indians make him an important figure in the history of American Indian activism in the 1960s and 1970s.
Oakes spent time in New York City working on high steel structures before moving to California, where he married Anne Marufo. He studied under Louis Kemnitzer at San Francisco State College in the American Indian Studies Department. There, Richard was introduced to the White Roots of Peace and the Third World Liberation Strikes at Berkeley, both inspirations for his activism. While in school, Richard and other students in his program met with Belva Cottier who, through her own experiences with Alcatraz, helped lay the groundwork for the students' future takeover.
Oakes joined forces with Adam Nordwall, who was also working on plans for an occupation of Alcatraz. Their collaborative group, the Indians of All Tribes, drafted a proclamation to illustrate the grievances of American Indians in cities and on reservations and to list their demands for Alcatraz. Chief among these demands was title to the land and support to build an American Indian Museum, a Center for Native American Studies, a Spiritual Center, and a scientific center for the study of ecology and environmental protection.
November 9, 1969, saw the first attempt to take Alcatraz. Before setting sail, Richard read the Proclamation of the IAT to the gathered press, who singled him out as the leader of the movement.
As they approached Alcatraz, Oakes jumped overboard and swam to shore to claim the island by right of discovery. After being removed by the Coast Guard, Oakes and his fellow students made a second attempt to occupy Alcatraz by returning only hours later. That night, the small band of occupants on the island sang songs and danced in celebration. The next day, before the Coast Guard removed them again, Oakes once again stressed the demands of the Indians of All Tribes for title to the land. On November 20, 1969, on a third attempt, eighty-nine American Indians, including Oakes, successfully occupied Alcatraz for an extended period of time.
Oakes believed that the protest on Alcatraz had the power to prove to the federal government and to the American public that American Indians were a vibrant and powerful entity in the late twentieth century, capable of self-determination. He hoped through the media to be able to reveal the vast contributions of American Indians to society and history and to push the federal government to begin acknowledging its massive legal obligations to American Indians.
Opposition to Oakes's growing power in the media created a rift among some of the newer occupiers, who wished for a completely egalitarian society on Alcatraz and saw his influence as a threat. On January 5, 1970, Oakes's daughter Yvonne fell down a flight of stairs and was killed. In deep mourning, the Oakes family left Alcatraz and new leadership factions rose to take his place.
After leaving Alcatraz, Oakes and his family went on to support other activist movements. He took part in the protests against the occupation by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company of the Pit River lands in northern California. In Santa Rosa California, Oakes helped plan a takeover of a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) post, where title to the land was eventually transferred to the Pomo Indians and an American Indian Learning Center was established.
In a tragic end to a brilliant life, Richard Oakes was shot to death September 20, 1972, by a YMCA camp manager, Michael Oliver Morgan, in Santa Clara, California. Morgan asserted that Oakes had attacked him, while Oakes's defenders maintained that he had been assassinated because Morgan objected to Oakes's positions on Native-rights issues. Through his efforts on Alcatraz and elsewhere, Richard Oakes helped give an upcoming generation of American Indians a renewed sense of pride and self-respect. His accomplishments in the field of American Indian activism created a new awareness of the important place of American Indians in history and in our modern society.
Johnson, Troy R. 1996. The Occupation of Alcatraz Island: Indian Self-Determination & The Rise of Indian Activism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.; Johnson, Troy R., Duane Champagne, and Joane Nagel, eds. 1997. American Indian Activism: Alcatraz to the Longest Walk. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.; Oakes, Richard. 1972. "Alcatraz Is Not an Island." Ramparts 9 (December): 35–40.