Richard Oakes: Life and Legacy of Native American Activist

Richard Oakes: Life and Legacy of Native American Activist

Richard Oakes' impact on Native American issues is still being felt today.

November 9, 2019, will mark the 50th Anniversary of the Alcatraz occupation led by Richard Oakes. The occupation is remembered each year with a sunrise ceremony.

He was a Mohawk Native American activist who had a massive impact on the rights of Native Americans and helped pioneer Native American studies in college curriculums around the country. He is best known for playing an integral role in the occupation of Alcatraz when Native American protestors took control over the former penitentiary to protest abusive government policies.

Keep reading to learn about Richard's life, legacy, and the impact he had in the United States.

Who was Richard Oakes?

He was born on May 22, 1942, on St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, on the border of Canada and New York State. Richard Oakes spent most of his early childhood years fishing and farming, which was typical for children living on the reservation at that time.

From age sixteen, Oakes quit school and worked as a high steelworker, a job that enabled him to travel. In 1968, he married and had a son with a woman he met while working in the steel industry. Shortly after his son was born he headed out west.

Leaving his wife and small child behind, Oakes left the East Coast to begin studying at San Francisco State University. It was during his time here that he worked as a bartender in the Mission District of San Francisco and he met many of the local Native Americans living in the area. He became well known around the city, and it was at the university where he would begin to notice something was missing.

Native America Studies

While he was enrolled at SFSU, he realized the gross lack of Native American studies. He teamed up with a professor in the university to help create the very first curriculum for Native American studies in the country. He became very friendly with the local Native American community and heavily encouraged others to also enroll in the university. He even brought some of the elders of the community to teach classes. Other universities followed suit and more Native American studies programs began to emerge, thanks to Richard.

Unfair Policies in the United States

Before the occupation, Native American issues in the US were not given the attention they deserved. Many were treated poorly in schools and seen as ‘less than' in too many communities around America at the time. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the American policy of Indian termination was practiced by the US government. The policy was created to try and integrate Native Americans into mainstream American society.

What is the problem with that, you may ask?

Well, think of it like having your government tell you that you must forget all of your family's traditions, stop living life the way as you knew it and start living like all of the “other Americans.” As one can imagine, this policy is detrimental for Native Americans, but with their great desire to preserve their culture and history, they began to protest the policy. In the mid-1960s the termination policy was changed, the influential activists who didn't give up can be thanked for the change in the system.

The Alcatraz Occupation

The Alcatraz Occupation was a nineteen-month long protest. American Indians and supporters occupied the famous island for over a year.

On November 9, 1969, Richard Oakes (Mohawk), Jim Vaughn (Cherokee), Joe Bill (Eskimo), and Ross Harden (Ho-Chunk) made their way as close to the island as possible. Richard led this group of fellow Native Americans along with other activists to the infamous Alcatraz Prison, located on an island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. On the way, their boats were stopped by the coast guard, but that did not stop Oakes from reaching the island, legend says he jumped off the boat and swam to the island.

By 1969, the prison was unused, the last prisoners were escorted off the island in 1963, and the island was declared by the US as surplus federal property.

Richard and the other activists created a safe haven for Indian Americans. They wanted a place where all Native Americans felt secure, and it was here that the group began to work on protests. Their ultimate goal was to transform the island into a Native American cultural center and school. The group named themselves Indians of All Tribes (IOAT). The group of protesters was made up of students, married couples, and there were even a few children on board. Indians of All Tribes claimed the island by right of discovery, citing the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) between the US and the Sioux.

They also accused the US government of breaking numerous Indian treaties. To announce their actions to the rest of the world, the group issued the ‘Alcatraz Proclamation.” It was sent to “The Great White Father And All His People.” Many of the protestors were also members of the ‘Red Power' movement, an organization that fought for Native American civil rights beginning in the 1960s.

The famous Alcatraz water tower was shortly graffitied with the words “Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free Indian Land,” and other slogans like “Red Power” were seen all over various buildings on the island.

During the peak of the occupation, over 400 people were living on Alcatraz Island. Native and non-native protests and supporters would bring food, clothing, and other necessities to the people on the island. The coast guard, of course, was trying to discourage folks from bringing them goods, so they made it more and more difficult with blockades.

As the occupation continued, more buzz surrounding their efforts began to make waves around the country. One of the inhabitants on the island started doing daily radio broadcast, and the occupiers started creating newsletters from the island.

Top actors in Hollywood like Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Anthony Quinn showed their support by not only visiting the island but bringing the protestors some much-needed supplies. The famous rock band ‘Creedence Clearwater Revival' even made a staggering $15,000 donation to the cause. It was eventually used to purchase a boat named ‘Clearwater.”

Below is a message Richard Oakes sent to the San Francisco Department of the Interior:

“We invite the United States to acknowledge the justice of our claim. The choice now lies with the leaders of the American government – to use violence upon us as before to remove us from our Great Spirit's land or to institute a real change in its dealing with the American Indian. We do not fear your threat to charge us with crimes on our land. We and all other oppressed peoples would welcome spectacle of proof before the world of your title by genocide. Nevertheless, we seek peace.” – Richard Oakes

It's crucial to take notice during the entire occupation that this was a peaceful protest. Richard and the other activists were far from violent; they simply wanted the rights they deserved as American citizens. They peacefully fought for American Indians to have control over their lands. The belief that Indians should have control over their area and acts was not seen as a fundamental human right for them. The protestors fought day and night to change the unfair US government policies.

The End of Alcatraz

Oakes ended up leaving the island after a tragic accident involving his stepdaughter in January of 1970. Many of the original occupants left to return to university, and there was an increasing drug issue among the new protestors. The living situation on the island was beginning to dwindle, supplies were sparse, the shelter was falling apart, and the food was running out.

The Nixon administration ended up cutting power to Alcatraz and all telephone communications to force out the remaining people on the island. Only a few weeks after, a massive fire tore through the island, damaging some of the historic buildings. To this day, no one knows if the fire was an accident or intentional, but it was a massive blow to the morale of the people on the island.

On June 11, 1971, armed government officials made their way onto the island to remove the last few Indian residents. While the occupation was ended forcefully, the impact it had on Native Americans in the United States will forever be remembered.

In 1973, Alcatraz opened as a national park. Today, thousands of visitors visit the island each year to see the graffiti left behind during the occupation. Not only is the graffiti celebrated, but in 2012 the park officials allowed the famous words on the water tower to be restored. They recreated the graffiti perfectly as an effort to help preserve one of the last remaining remnants of the occupation. The painting on the water tower is one of the few remaining remnants of the occupation that are in areas open to the general public,” said Picavet

Each year during November a sunrise ceremony is held on the island.

Richard Oakes' Untimely Death

On September 20, 1972, Richard Oakes passed. At this point in his life, he was making waves across the country, people knew who he was, and they wanted to hear what he had to say. Richard was shot and killed by a man named Michael Morgan, a YMCA camp worker.

Michael was a known white supremacist and was rumored to always be harder on Native American children who attended the camps. During an alleged violent confrontation with Oakes, Morgan claims he was in fear for his life and responded by fatally shooting him. At the time of his death, Oakes was completely unarmed. After being charged for voluntary manslaughter, Morgan was acquitted by a jury who were in agreement that it was an act of self-defense.

Many Oakes supporters were not happy with the news and claimed a racially motivated jury supported Morgan. Richard Oakes died at the very young age of thirty.

The Legacy He Left Behind

After his unfortunate death, his legacy has been making an impact on the lives of Native Americans ever since. To think he was able to accomplish such a great deal on behalf of Native Americans in just 30 short years of his life is pretty incredible.

We can only imagine what he could have accomplished if his life didn't tragically come to an end. While he was unable to hold Alcatraz permanently, the occupation did shed light on the cause. Media attention was buzzing, and hundreds of other protests were staged around the country.

Richard Oakes' idea was that Native Americans are in control of their own destiny. He promoted this idea around the county, giving other Native Americans a voice to stand up for themselves and be heard by government leaders.

After the occupation ended, then-President Richard Nixon granted back 48,000 acres of land to the Taos Indians. His life was devoted to improving the lives of Native Americans. Today, San Francisco University is home to the Richard Oakes Multicultural Center, a place where his memory is honored.

10 Fun Facts About Richard Oakes

  • He was a talented fisherman as a child
  • Oakes is originally from New York
  • It was said that he is very photogenic, and some believe that helped him gain popularity
  • He has a son named Byran Oakes who he left on the East Coast when he went out west
  • Google honored his memory in 2017 with a ‘Google Doodle'
  • Many of his fellow protesters on Alcatraz were also SFSU students
  • Richard Oakes was always a peaceful protestor
  • He had a stepdaughter who tragically died at age 13 due to an accident
  • He was chosen to be the ‘Mayor of Alcatraz' by his fellow demonstrators
  • There is a ballet inspired by his life called ‘Song for Dead Warriors'

Featured image courtesy of National Parks Service.

Last Updated on July 14, 2021 by Jared McKiernan

2 Comments on “Richard Oakes: Life and Legacy of Native American Activist”

  • Avatar for Belinda Oakes Young

    Belinda Oakes Young


    Thank you for the Richard Oakes piece

    • Avatar for Paul G

      Paul G


      You’re welcome!

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