Native American activist Richard Oakes is the subject of today’s Google Doodle. May 22, 2017, would be his 75th birthday. Oakes is best known for creating one of the first Native American studies departments in the nation, and leading an occupation of Alcatraz Island in the late 1960s.
Oakes, affectionally dubbed “Chief” by his fellow Natives, was born in New York on May 22, 1942, and died on September 20, 1972 at 30.
“Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Richard Oakes made a stand for the rights of American Indians. Over his time as an activist, he fought peacefully for freedom, justice, and the right of American Indians to have control over their lands,” Google says. “Today’s Doodle recognizes places that were important in his life’s story and mission, depicting the Akwesasne reservation, Alcatraz Island, and Pit River. Here’s to Richard Oakes, for his unwavering dedication to his community and social justice.”
Learn more about Oakes, his politically charged life, and the controversy surrounding his premature death here:
1. Before Becoming An Activist, Oakes, a Member of the Mohawk Tribe, Was A Steel Worker
Oakes was born near the Canadian border on the Mohawk Indian Reservation in Akwesasne, New York, where he followed in the footsteps of his ancestors by fishing and planting crops of corn, beans, and squash. Unfortunately, this existence was destroyed by the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which, according to Indian Country News, “brought heavy industry to our pastoral area resulting in contamination of our lands, waters, and bodies.”
Faced with finding a new profession, Oakes evolved with the times and became a high steel worker, which required him to do a great deal of traveling. It was during one of these trips that he wed an Italian woman in Rhode Island, and the two would have a child, Bryan, in 1968.
2. He Attended San Francisco State University
Not long after the birth of his son, Oakes divorced his wife, changed professions yet again, and moved out West. He subsequently enrolled in San Francisco State University, according to the Richard Oakes Multicultural Center at the college.
While a student there, he attended classes during the day and worked as a bartender in the nearby Mission District at night. While in attendance at SFSU, however, Oakes grew discontent with the courses that were being offered, and joined forces with an Anthropology professor to expand the curriculum to include Native American studies.
He developed the outline for what would go on to become one of the first Native American studies programs in the nation, which encouraged other American Indians to enroll in San Francisco State University, according to the Richard Oakes Multicultural Center. This increasing awareness among the community, coupled with Oakes’ increasing interest in activism and equality, eventually led to the famed Alcatraz protest in 1969.
3. He Helped Lead the Occupation of Alcatraz in 1969
Oakes, along with more than 80 Native Americans, helped lead the occupation of Alcatraz Island, the longest occupation of a federal land in U.S. history, in an effort to gain awareness for issues affecting their people. According to History.com, Oakes and the other activists declared the former prison land to belong to them by “right of discovery.”
The Richard Oakes Multicultural Center explains, “The goals of the Native inhabitants of Alcatraz Island were to gain a deed to the island, establish an American Indian university, cultural center, and museum. While Oakes and his followers did not succeed in obtaining the island, as a result of their occupation, the U.S. government policy of terminating American Indian tribes ended and was replaced by a policy of Native self-determination.”
In an excerpt from Indian Country News, journalist Doug George-Kanentiion spoke to the burgeoning political climate that Oakes found himself in:
“He came to see his heritage as a source of pride rather something to be hidden. He was encouraged to find a cause, take a stand, become what he was meant to be– a leader of the people. In the fall of 1969, all the right regional factors came into play: a large Bay area Native student population, a vibrant media, a history of political activism throughout the region.”
Oakes, along with a group of SFSU students (and 80 UCLA students), occupied Alcatraz from 1969 to 1971. The goal was to obtain ownership of the island and establish an independent community where Natives could live, cook, and establish their own museums and cultural centers. Sadly, the death of Oakes’ teenage step-daughter, Yvonne, in 1970, greatly affected him, and led to his voluntary departure soon after. The government removed the remaining protestors later that year. It was the longest occupation of a federal facility by Natives in history. Watch Oakes deliver the Alcatraz Proclamation above.
Despite being deemed a “failure” initially, Oakes did manage to affect U.S. policy and the treatment of Native Americans moving forward. The Termination of Indian Tribes policy that was established in the 1940s was terminated in favor of the Indian Self-Determination policy, which allowed the government to provide grants to Native tribes.
4. Oakes Was Married a Second Time & Continued to Lead Activist Missions After Leaving Alcatraz
After Alcatraz, Oakes continued to participate in activist organizations. He joined up with the Pit River Tribe in an attempt to reclaim three million acres of property from the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. In a sentiment that proved similar to his goal on Alcatraz, Oakes planned to create a university on the property, as a means of educating Native Americans and providing them with job opportunities.
This attempt, while successful, led to police brutality that included bombardment with tear gas, billy clubs, and brief jail time. Oakes was released soon after, but was hospitalized for a time in 1971 when he suffered a brutal beating by two men in a bar in San Francisco. He was reportedly in a coma for a month, but made a full recovery.
Oakes was married a second time, in 1969, to Anna Marufo, a member of the Kashia Pomo nation, according to a Historical Dictionary of Native American Movements. He adopted her five children. Anna Oakes died in August 2010, according to The Press Democrat. Anna Oakes was with her husband at Alcatraz, and it was there where her daughter died, falling three stories from a prison structure, according to her obituary.
5. He Was Shot And Killed In 1972
Oakes, like so many revolutionary leaders of the time, died at a tragically young age. He was shot and killed by a man named Michael Morgan, who was a camp manager at YMCA. Morgan had a bad reputation when it came to his treatment of Native American children, and Oakes reportedly confronted him over this, causing Morgan to draw a handgun and shoot him point blank.
Morgan was charged with involuntary manslaughter, but he was found not guilty by an all-white jury six months later on the grounds that Oakes was being aggressive and Morgan was acting in self-defense, according to The Press-Democrat.
“I’m not bitter. I’m hurt,” his wife, Anna Oakes, told the Press Democrat after the verdict. “In a case like this, if an Indian had shot a white man, do you think they would have come out with the same verdict?”
Oakes died on September 20, 1972 in Sonoma, California. While commemorating the late Oakes, George-Kanentiion wrote:
“Richard was attractive to the media. He spoke well, had a powerful presence… He wanted a Native Peace Corps, a national Native university, a confederacy of Native nations able to defend and expand upon their status as free, independent nations. Some of his dreams have yet to pass but his standing as the first great Native hero of modern times has not dimmed.”
In November 2009, San Francisco Mayor declared the 40th anniversary of the Alcatraz occupation to be Richard Oakes Day in the city.