Murdered far too young at the age of 30, Mohawk activist Richard Oakes “had a profound impact on the struggle for Indian rights,” according to Alexander Ewen and Jeffrey Wollock in their book, “Encyclopedia of the American Indian in the Twentieth Century” (University of New Mexico Press, 2015).
Richard Oakes was born on May 22, 1942 in Akwesasne, New York. He grew up on the Mohawk Indian Reservation in Akwesasne, on the border of Canada and New York State. He left school at the age 16 to become a construction worker. He then attended Adirondack Community College and Syracuse University, both in New York.
When he was 18, he moved to San Francisco and enrolled at San Francisco State University. He played an integral role there in launching and developing the curriculum for one of the first American Indian studies programs in the Unites States. It was also during his time in California that he met and married a Kashia Pomo woman, Annie Marufano, and adopted her five children.
The Occupation of Alcatraz Island may be what Richard Oakes is most known for, because it brought national attention to Native American issues. Nearly 80 college students took over the island in San Francisco Bay on November 20, 1969 to protest poor treatment of Indians in schools and termination policy in a 19-month occupation that would have a lasting impact.
While Richard Oakes and the other leaders of the Alcatraz Occupation didn’t succeed in obtaining the deeds to Alcatraz Island in order to set up a community with a university, museum, and cultural center, they did get some positive actions from the White House. President Richard Nixon put an end to termination policy in 1970.
In his July 8, 1970 address, Nixon called for a new policy of “self-determination without termination,” instigating lasting changes in federal-Indian relationships. “The first Americans—the Indians—are the most deprived and most isolated minority group in our nation,” he said. “On virtually every scale of measurement—employment, income, education, health—the condition of the Indian people ranks at the bottom.”
Since the Occupation of Alcatraz Island, many federal laws have been passed that have had a positive impact on Natives, including the Indian Education Act, and the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, as well as the Indian Health Service budget doubling and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission being established. (Read more about the impact the occupation had in this piece by Dr. Dean Chavers.)
A tragedy in January 1970—the death of his stepdaughter Yvonne—Richard Oakes left Alcatraz Island, but that same year joined the Pit River Tribe’s fight to reclaim their land new Mount Shasta, California from the Pacific Gas & Electric Company.
Richard Oakes did all of this in just 30 short years—he was shot and killed on September 20, 1972 by Michael Morgan, a security guard at a YMCA camp. “Oakes was there simply to pick up a friend, but when the argument grew heated, a security guard for the camp shot the unarmed Oakes dead,” Ewen and Wollock said. Morgan, a non-Indian was charged with murder, but claimed that Oakes ambushed him and the charge was changed to involuntary manslaughter. “Although there was no evidence of a struggle, Morgan’s attorneys argued self-defense before a jury of non-Native citizens,” they said. Morgan was acquitted, and the death of Richard Oakes stunned the Native activist community.
“Though his life was short, Oakes had a profound impact on the struggle for Indian rights, and his actions inspired such groups as the American Indian Movement (AIM) to try to duplicate his success,” Ewen and Wollock said.