Native American activist Richard Oakes is the inspiration for today’s Google Doodle. May 22, 2017, would have been his 75th birthday.
Oakes is best known for creating one of the country’s first Native American studies departments and leading an occupation of Alcatraz Island in the late 1960s.
Oakes was known as “Chief” by his fellow Native Americans. He 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.”
Here’s everything you need to know about Oakes.
Oakes was born near the Candian border on the Mohawk Indian Reservation in Akwesasne, New York. As a member of the Mohawk tribe, Oakes fished and planted an assortment of crops. However, the tribe was unable to continue these practices after the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which industrialized the area.
Forced to find a new profession, Oakes became a steel worker which required a significant amount of travel. During one of these trips, Oakes wed an Italian woman in Rhode Island and had a son, Bryan, in 1968.
San Francisco State University
Soon after the birth of his son, Oakes divorced his wife and moved out West to pursue new interests. He enrolled in San Francisco State University where he attended class during the day and worked as a bartender at night. During his time at SFSU, however, Oakes grew frustrated with the curriculum and teamed with an Anthropology professor to include more Native American studies.
This would eventually become the outline for what would be the nation’s first Native American studies program.
Occupation of Alcatraz
Oakes and more than 80 Native Americans led the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969, which is the longest occupation of a federal land in U.S. history. Their goal was to promote awareness for issues affecting Native Americans.
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.”
The group would occupy the island until 1971. Unfortunately, the death of Oakes’ teenage-step-daughter in 1970 pushed him to voluntarily depart the island soon after. The remaining protestors were removed by the government shortly after. Though they failed in their goal to obtain ownership of the island and establish an independent community, they did succeed in affecting U.S. policy.
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.
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.
Oakes was shot and killed by Michael Morgan, a camp manager at YMCA. Morgan had a poor reputation in regards to his treatment of Native American children. Oakes reportedly confronted him over this, which prompted Morgan to draw a handgun and shoot Oakes point blank.
Morgan was charged with involuntary manslaughter, but he was found not guilty by an all-white jury six months because Oakes was deemed to have been acting aggressive, allowing Morgan to use a self-defense legal response.
“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?”
In November 2009, San Francisco Mayor declared the 40th anniversary of the Alcatraz occupation to be Richard Oakes Day in the city.