Richard Oakes fought to unify Natives and educate people about cultures indigenous to the western hemisphere. His mentor, Wallace “Mad Bear” Anderson, who founded the American Indian Unity Movement, helped structure Richard’s philosophy.
Activism also surrounded Richard Oakes. As a young man, Richard saw firsthand the 1965 grape strikes led by Cesar Chavez. Then in 1968, his tribe back home blocked the Cornwall International Bridge demanding unrestricted transport for their members across the US-Canada boarder. His turn to lead had arrived.
As a student at San Francisco State University, Richard helped develop the very first curriculum on American Indian Studies in the USA and encouraged Native Americans to enroll there.
Most know him for his action in November 1969, when Richard Oakes and four other Natives jumped off a yacht to reclaim Alcatraz. They swam 250 yards in the chilly waters of San Francisco Bay to begin an island occupation that lasted 2 years. The federal government abandoned the Alcatraz prison in 1963. This invasion group called themselves “Indians of All Tribes” and cited legal rights to Alcatraz under the Fort Laramie Treaty, which allowed Sioux to lay claims of unused Federal Lands.
Many more Natives arrived later and the group nominated Richard “Mayor of Alcatraz”. He hoped to build a University and Cultural Center on the island. Unfortunately, in January 1970 his step daughter died from a fall and Richard left Alcatraz. Alcatraz occupation helped end federal termination and began Indian self-determination policies.
Soon after, Richard Oakes arrived in Seattle to support planning for the Fort Lawton takeover. Bernie Whitebear wrote that Richard Oakes’ fame helped inspire Seattle Natives to press forward with the Ft Lawton invasion. The invasion led to the eventual construction of the Daybreak Star Cultural Center.
Upon his return to California, Richard Oakes was beaten badly in a bar fight. The fight left him with a fractured skull and diminished use of his legs.
In Sept. 1972 a YMCA Camp Worker shot and killed Richard Oakes when Richard tried to intervene with disciplinary action being enforced by the Camp Worker on a Native child. The killer served no prison time after pleading self-defense. Richard Oakes was 31.