Richard Oakes, Native American Activist

Richard Oakes, the famous Mohawk Native American activist, is world renown for leading the unused Alcatraz prison occupation in the San Francisco Bay at the end of the 1960s. Richard is well-credited with bringing change to the narrative around the rights of indigenous peoples. See also this 1969 video with Richard Oakes delivering his famous Alcatraz Proclamation during the occupation of Alcatraz:

Richard was born on May 22, 1942, and he died in September 1972, so he would have been 76 years old today if he hadn’t been killed and still alive. In Richard’s honor, a Google Doodle was created.
Richard Oakes was a Mohawk tribe member, a tribe that originated from the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada regions. Richard grew up in upstate New York but moved to the San Francisco area where he enrolled at San Francisco State University.

Oakes was not so pleased with the classes offered at SF State and when he got involved in the local Native American communities, he helped with founding (together with an anthropology professor) the first U.S. Native American Studies departments.

The revolutionary, vibrant atmosphere at the end of the 1960s, in combination with his social and academic connections, led Richard Oakes to start one of the most feared and respected radical direct action movements ever set up by activists from Native American origin.

In 1969, Richard was leading a group of Native Americans and other students to the Alcatraz prison, located right in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. When the activists’ boats were stopped, Oakes swam all the way to the island where the unused prison was located.

The Native American activists then made Alcatraz a sanctuary for all Native Americans and the island became the focal point for protests to stop the American policy of Indian termination which dated back to the early 1940s and includes measures targeted at the integration of Native Americans into mainstream US society. Richard Oakes, together with his fellow protesters, were aiming at self-determination for all Native Americans. He also advocated better options for Native American students for receiving financial support from the U.S. Government.

The activists’ group later (in 1969) released the so-called “Alcatraz Proclamation” which announced the plan to turn Alcatraz into a center of Indian Culture and they offered to buy the island for the sum of $24 (but in beads and cloths), the same amount the European colonists paid for the Island of Manhattan back in 1626.

In a message to the SF Department of the Interior, Oakes wrote: “We are inviting the United States to acknowledge our claim’s justice. Now, the choice lies with the American government’s leaders – to apply violence against us, as was done before, to chase us out of the land of our Great Spirit, or to establish a viable and real change in how it deals American Indians. We are not fearing your threats to criminally charge us on land that’s ours. We, and with us, all oppressed people in this nation would be welcoming proof of your title before you attack us. In spite of your threats, we are seeking peace.”

The protesters numbered around 400 and stayed on Alcatraz Island for over one year. The group was constantly drawing a lot of media attention which fuelled the continuing debate over the rights of Native Americans. By 1971, the occupation was diminished but it really had been the greatest source of inspiration for some 200 more Native American protest activities. What’s very important is that the peaceful movement caused the US government to change its Indian termination policy and President Richard Nixon even vowed to support Indian self-determination. See also this post about how the Cesar Chavez Student Center supports youth.

After he left the Island of Alcatraz, Richard Oakes continued his revolutionary activities which led to multiple arrests and he suffered much violence. In 1972, after an argument with a YMCA leader, Richard was shot and killed and his killer (Michael Morgan) was not found guilty of murder. In 1975, the Indian Self-Determination & Education Assistance Act (that allowed U.S. federal agencies to cooperate with established Native American tribes) was enacted. Today.more and more minority women start their own businesses, but in those days, this was in no way common practice.

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