Richard Oakes was a Mohawk Native American activist and former SFSU student, who, through his actions and voice, promoted the fundamental idea that Native peoples have a right to sovereignty, self-determination, justice, respect and control over their own destinies. His legacy reflects the struggles of Native peoples—and all peoples—to maintain their land, identity and lifeways.
In 1969, Oakes led a group of students and urban Bay Area American Indians in an occupation of Alcatraz Island that would last until 1971, becoming the longest occupation of a federal facility by Native peoples.
Described as handsome, charismatic, talented, and a natural leader, Oakes was identified as “chief” of the island. However, all decisions were made by the unanimous consent of the people.
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.
Oakes played an integral part in creating one of the first American Indian Studies departments in the nation here at San Francisco State University by developing the initial curriculum for the program and encouraging other American Indians to enroll.