Richard Oakes not only once convinced a group of people to break into Alcatraz, but he also managed to make a major political statement while he did it. Richard was a member of the Mohawk Native American tribe and was born in New York in 1942. When he was a teenager, he briefly dropped out of high school in order to become an ironworker, which was no small feat in itself. The job mostly consisted of walking around on iron beams at death-defying heights, all as part of a construction effort that helped build skyscrapers. Impressive as that may seem, however, rest assured that it’s nothing compared to the impact he would go on to make.

Putting Native Americans back into American history

In 1968, Richard Oaks decided that it was time for a change of scenery and moved to San Francisco where he enrolled to study at San Francisco State University. In order to work his way through school, he became a bartender in the Mission district, where he got to know several local Native communities. The more he studied at SFSU, the less impressed he became with the curriculum, which seemed to offer little insight into the many contributions of Native Americans throughout history. Eventually, he decided to turn his irritation into motivation and worked with the staff to develop one of the first Native American Studies departments in the United States.

Now, the 1960s and 70s were a huge heyday for social activism and Richard decided it was time to ride the tide of revolution that was in the air. In fact, the late 1960s gave birth to what would become known as the Red Power Movement. Native Americans throughout the country began to rise up and protest the massive amounts of land that had been stolen from them by the United States government throughout the course of history.

Occupy Alcatraz

Richard Oaks would become known as one of the fathers of the movement due, in part, to a brilliant protest he staged on Alcatraz in 1969. It all went back to an agreement called the Treaty of Fort Laramie which had been made between the Lakota people and the U.S. government. The treaty stipulated that should any piece of land become unused or deemed “surplus,” it would at that time be returned to the Native American people. Well, it turned out that, at the time, Alcatraz island was just sitting there and was definitely defining “surplus.”

So Richard Oakes and about 400 other Native protesters decided to hold the government to their word. The group pretty much moved onto Alcatraz and discovered that it was indeed habitable. As a result, some members of the group stayed there for nearly a year in order to draw attention to Native rights and to protest a government policy known as the Indian Termination Policy. The group dubbed the island a sanctuary for Native Americans and announced that they planned to turn it into an Indian cultural center. They even released an ingenious offer to buy it from the government for $24 in cloth and beads, the same price the Europeans gave Native tribes for the Island of Manhattan in 1626.

A lasting legacy

Though the protest only lasted until 1971, it was the inspiration for hundreds of other Native American protests around the United States. Such protests went on to prove the power of social activism, as the government eventually did change the policy of Indian termination, which had been aimed at encouraging Native Americans to move off of reservations. It was replaced by the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act in 1975, which finally established a much better system in which the government and recognized tribes would work together.

Unfortunately, the legacy of Richard Oaks was cut tragically short when he was shot and killed in 1972 during an argument over his activism work. His killer was a man named Michael Morgan, who sparked international outrage when he was acquitted of Richard’s murder by a jury. This lead many American Indian activists to launch a Washington D.C. protest later the same year which would become known as the Trail of Broken Treaties.