20 Things You Didn’t Know about Activist Richard Oakes

Richard Oakes was a Native American activist who played an important role in the development of Native American studies in the United States. Furthermore, he can claim a sizable portion of the credit for bringing an end to the Indian Termination Policy, which is in addition to his influence over the Native American rights movement as a whole. Here are 10 things that you may or may not have known about Richard Oakes:

1. Member of the Mohawk Nation

Oakes was a member of the Mohawk Nation. In short, the Mohawk were one of the five founding peoples of the Iroquois Confederation, which is believed to have been made possible by the strenuous efforts of two men named Deganawidah and Hiawatha as well as one woman named Jigonsaseh. Since the Mohawk people were the furthest east of the five, they were sometimes called the Keepers of the Eastern Door.

2. Born in St. Regis Mohawk Reservation

In 1942, Oakes was born in a place called the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, which can be found in the state of New York. Said reservation sits next to another reservation situated in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. With that said, it is important to note that the people living in the two reservations see themselves as being a single unit, which is helped by the fact that they have the right to cross the border between Canada and the United States freely.

3. Was a High Steel-worker

At one point in time, Oakes was a high steel-worker, which refers to the people who are responsible for setting up the metal skeletons of tall buildings. Suffice to say that this was a very demanding job, seeing as how interested individuals needed to be strong, intelligent, and courageous enough to spend hours and hours in the sky. Moreover, there was a lack of stability because high steel-workers needed to move from place to place to follow their jobs, though they had a stronger bargaining position as well.

4. Studied at San Francisco State University

Eventually, Oakes winded up in San Francisco, where he went to study at San Francisco State University. While he was there, he worked as a bartender in the Mission District, which provided him with a chance to become familiar with local Native American communities.

5. Helped Create One of the First Native American Studies Departments

Oakes was less than satisfied with San Francisco State University’s offerings when it comes to Native American Studies. As a result, he played a pivotal role in creating one of the first Native American Studies departments in the United States. In fact, Oakes was the one who created the initial curriculum, which was in addition to his role in encouraging other Native Americans to attend as well as encouraging Native American elders to speak to the classes.

6. Key Member of the Occupation of Alcatraz

Later, Oakes became a key member of the Occupation of Alcatraz from 1969 to 1971. In short, the Treaty of Fort Laramie signed by the United States and the Lakota people stated that surplus federal land would be returned to the Native American peoples who once owned it. Since Alcatraz had been declared surplus in 1964, a group of Native American people plus supporters decided to give land reclamation a shot.

7. Became Mayor of Alcatraz

Initially, the Occupation of Alcatraz was supposed to be more symbolic in nature. However, that plan changed when the activists realized that the island could support a more long-term occupation. It is interesting to note that Oakes winded up being chosen as the Mayor of Alcatraz by his fellow activists, which is why he was the one who demanded the deed to the island from the federal authorities.

8. Left Before the End

The Occupation of Alcatraz came to a conclusion in the middle of 1971 when the federal authorities removed the last activists from the island. By that point in time, their numbers had dwindled from hundreds at their height to no more than 15 because of internal disputes, federal pressure tactics, and falling sympathy from the public. Oakes and his family had left earlier because Oakes’s 13-year-old stepdaughter Yvonne had died from a fall, meaning that they just didn’t have the heart to continue under such circumstances.

9. Helped End the Indian Termination Policy

Regardless, the Occupation of Alcatraz succeeded at raising awareness of Native American issues, with the result that it helped to end the Indian Termination Policy, which was about as ominous as it sounds. In short, the Indian Termination Policy was meant to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream American society whether they wanted to or not. However, what distinguished it from its predecessors was its sense of urgency, which made it that much more problematic.

10. Was Killed By Michael Morgan

Unfortunately, Oakes was killed in 1972 by a YMCA security guard named Michael Morgan, who was known to have white supremacist views. What happened was that Oakes was there to pick up a friend, which resulted in an encounter between the two that resulted in Morgan killing him with a gun. Morgan claimed that he had been ambushed by Oakes even though there was no sign of a struggle, which resulted in him being acquitted on the basis of self-defense by a jury consisting of 100 percent non-Native American citizens.

11. Grew Up in a Sovereign Nation

The people who live at the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation and its Canadian counterpart see themselves as members of a sovereign nation. There have been a lot of complications on this particular issue, but it is interesting to note that Native American tribes tend to be regarded as “sovereign within a sovereign,” which is why they don’t fall under the jurisdiction of the states.

12. Spent Childhood Fishing and Planting Beans

It is said that Oakes spent much of his childhood in much the same manner as his ancestors, which is to say, fishing and planting beans. For those who are curious, traditional Mohawk farmers are known to have planted corn, squash, and beans, which were so associated with one another that the trio became known as the Three Sisters. As for why Mohawk farmers planted these three plants together, well, the answer can be found in how they would flourish in unison.

13. Would Have Been Well-Paid As a High Steel-worker

As a high steel-worker, it seems safe to say that Oakes would have been well-paid. In part, this is because the position was so demanding that there weren’t a lot of people who possessed the right combination of characteristics needed to perform under said circumstances. Never mind the even smaller number of people who would’ve have been willing to perform because of the lack of stability. However, it should also be remembered that there was a demand issue as well because high steel-workers were needed for the construction of taller structures.

14. Spent Some Time in Rhode Island

Before he headed westward, Oakes spent some time in Rhode Island where he was one of the people who worked on the Newport, RI bridge. There, he met a woman from Bristol, RI, with the result that the two got married before having a son. Unfortunately, it seems that the relationship didn’t work out because the two divorced before Oakes headed west to the state of California.

15. Encouraged By White Roots of Peace

At around the same time that Oakes was active at San Francisco State University, there were Mohawk people forming traveling troupes called the White Roots of Peace that sought to encourage Native American peoples to assert themselves. In the spring of 1969, Oakes met the White Roots of Peace, whose members encouraged him to fight for what he believed in.

16. Married a Woman of the Pomo Nation

In 1969, Oakes got married to Annie Marufo, who was a member of the Pomo Nation. In short, the Pomo are one of the Native American peoples who lived in what is now the state of California. The name came into existence as a conflation of a couple of Pomo words that translate to something along the lines of “those living at red earth hole,” which was the name of a village rather than the people as a whole. It is interesting to note that the Pomo people are famous for their basket-weaving, the products of which are much more sought-after than what most people would expect.

17. His Photogenic Nature Helped Him Become More Prominent

There are some activist movements that are directed from above by a small number of leaders. In contrast, other activist movements are much less hierarchical in nature, with the occupation of Alcatraz being an excellent example. With that said, non-hierarchical activist movements are interesting in that how the media interacts with them can cause some of their members to emerge as leaders because of their increased prominence. There are those who believe that Oakes’s photogenic nature was one of the factors that enabled him to rise to the fore of the occupation of Alcatraz.

18. Helped the Pit River Tribe

Oakes’s interest in fighting for what he believed in didn’t end with the occupation of Alcatraz. For example, he was one of the figures who helped the Pit River Tribe in their effort to reclaim close to 3 million acres of land that had been seized by Pacific Gas & Electric.

19. Wanted to Create a Mobile University

One of Oakes’s unrealized ambitions was to create a mobile university for Native Americans. Said institution would’ve been set up for the purpose of helping its potential students find new opportunities for themselves through learning.

20. Inspired a Ballet

Unsurprisingly, Oakes has inspired art. With that said, one of the most interesting examples would be the ballet inspired by his life called Song for Dead Warriors, which was broadcast on PBS as part of a longer series.


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