This week, Google released a new Doodle commemorating what would have been the 75th birthday of Richard Oakes, Indigenous activist most well known as a leader in the occupation of Alcatraz in 1970. The Doodle unexpectedly coincided with conversations that my partner Diana and I had been having of her memories of working alongside Oakes during their days as students at San Francisco State.
I grew up loving the sixties. It seemed a time of such potential, such energy and hope. I grew up only a decade later but that decade made a profound difference in my experiences. Diana tells me it was a time of innocence. Over the years, Diana has shared the stories of being chased by police on horseback swinging billy clubs, of being surrounded by tanks, and of students running into classrooms at San Francisco State thinking they were going to be killed. Her stories have helped me to understand the trauma and deep wounds that activists still experience fifty years later and, as I thought about Richard Oakes, it helped contextualize the time and place in which Oakes and other Native students organized to create American Indian Studies and to demand inclusion and equity.
Oakes was born in 1942 on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation on the New York-Canadian border. After working as a steelworker, he moved west to San Francisco, divorcing his wife and leaving his son. He enrolled in SFSU and along with Dr. Bea Medicine, an influential Lakota anthropologist, began one of the earliest American Indian Studies programs in the nation.
Diana calls Oakes, her friend of so many years ago, a motivator and an inspiration to others. He was eloquent and charismatic. Oakes and others had a broad vision for the future of Indigenous people that included education and spirituality and a renewed connection to the land, especially for people who had been dispossed of their ancestral lands or had been moved to urban areas like San Francisco under the federal policy of temination.
Oakes was a leader in an event that represented the pride and resistance of Native peoples. In November 1969, Indigenous people took over Alcatraz, which had served as a federal penitentiary between 1934 and 1963, when it was closed. Under the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty, the government had promised to return all retired land to the tribe(s) from which they acquired it. Indians of All Nations took possession of Alcatraz under this treaty and an original contingent of 14 occupiers was later followed by 89 women, men, and children. According to an informational pamphlet put out by Indians of All Tribes, the regular population grew to 150 and over 12,000 tribal people visited during the occupation. There were plans to build a Native American Studies center, an environmental center, a spiritual center, a training school, and a museum.
In the video below, Richard Oakes delivers the Alcatraz Proclamation. It is also shown in print below on a screen print from the National Park Service website for Alcatraz Island, "the Rock."
Oakes and Indians of All Nations acknowledged the support and solidarity shown by other groups. "Other minority groups have offered support and encouragement. The Casa Hispana of San Francisco is planning a food march to obtain supplies for the island on Thanksgiving Day. The local Nicaraguan and Spanish-American communities have expressed support," reads the November 26, 1969 press release. It is these examples of cross-racial/ethnic unity that can inform us in our contemporary work. It is also these examples of solidarity that are often made invisible in the way history is told.
As I read the Google Doodle information about Richard Oakes, I thought they did a fair job at describing his accomplishments and life in 260 words. But, they left out an equally important part of his story: his death at age 30 in 1972.
If you do a Google search for the murder of Richard Oakes, you find a variety of scenarios: Sources say he was killed by 34-year-old Michael Morgan, who worked at a YMCA, in a dispute over hunting rights; others say Oakes was defending Native children and their mistreatment by Morgan; others say that he was going to pick someone up when the confrontation occurred. Morgan claimed that he killed Oakes in self-defense and that he had jumped out from behind a tree, threatening Morgan. Some say they had an encounter a week earlier where Oakes pulled a knife. Morgan was charged with manslaughter and six months later, an all-white jury found him not guilty. One witness testified that after the killing Morgan bragged, “It’s open season on coons and Indians.” Protests followed the jury decision.
At the time of his murder, Oakes was assisting the Pit River tribe with reclaiming tribal land. Activists at the time connected his murder to these activities. In 1972, his second wife Anne Marufo Oakes filed a claim for land taken from the Pomo tribe on the Sonoma County coast.
After Oakes’ death, Governor Ronald Reagan vetoed a grant to the Bay Area Native American Council, purporting that they had spent government funds on unauthorized expenditures, including $2,000 to transport Oakes’ body back to New York. He was buried in San Francisco. Even in death, the government villainized him.
I applaud Google for remembering Richard Oakes; it is important to remember the lessons he taught up in life and in death. In life, he taught peaceful protest to gain justice for Indigenous people. He taught devotion to ideals and showed how a sincere form of leadership can bring people together.
In death, he taught us that the power structure will do anything possible to silence those who motivate and organize others to create change in marginalized communities. It is a lesson that we must take seriously.