Richard Oakes legacy: 'Alcatraz is not an island. It's an idea'
Richard Oakes, Akwesasne Mohawk, was a street fighter, a gang member and an ex-con. From age 16 he worked on riveting crews building skyscrapers high above Manhattan, just like his father and uncles. At night he ran with a Native American gang in Brooklyn in the Mohawk neighborhood known as “Little Caughnawaga” and fought in turf wars against other ethnic gangs.
But according to biographer Kent Blansett, in the summer of 1968 Oakes quit his job, sold his tools, and climbed in his red 1965 Ford Mustang and drove across the country to San Francisco. A year later he was a principal leader of the 1969 Indigenous takeover and occupation of Alcatraz Island.
An examination of a natural leader
In his book, A Journey to Freedom: Richard Oakes, Alcatraz, and the Red Power Movement (2018, Yale University Press), Blansett traces the evolution of Oakes from a young rough and ready Native street fighter, who often stuck up for his kid brother Leonard, to the eloquent, sincere leader of the San Francisco-based intertribal organization the Indians of All Tribes.
Blansett explained what drew him to write about this often overlooked leader of the Alcatraz takeover.
“Richard has that heroic spark,” Blansett said, “someone I felt was very real… He struggled, but he persevered throughout his life and I think that was the story that appealed to me because it was so real.”
Blansett’s interest in Oakes started when he was an undergrad at the University of Missouri when Blansett himself, who comes from Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Shawnee and Potawatomi ancestry, became involved in Native activism. He read every book he could find on the Red Power Movement and became interested in the late Richard Oakes, who was assassinated in 1972.
Not much had been written about Oakes. Most books only described the main points of his life, his upbringing on the St. Regis Reservation, his job as an ironworker in New York, his later position as coordinator of the Native American Studies program at San Francisco State College. But something was missing. How did Oakes make the leap from gang member to leader of one of the most successful Native American resistance movements in modern times?
“I felt as though we couldn’t really know the truth about Alcatraz until we know the truth about Richard. That’s where the story had to really start,” Blansett said.
While at graduate school at the University of New Mexico, Blansett wrote his master’s thesis on Oakes. Then after a five-year sabbatical, he expanded his thesis into a dissertation. He is currently an Associate Professor of History and Native American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
As Blansett researched Oakes’s life, he uncovered many threads that led to the Native leader’s transformation from big-hearted street fighter to charismatic champion of non-violence and bold action. But one facet of the transformation stood out: the phenomenon of the Indian City.
Alcatraz and the Dream of the Indian City
The original vision of the 1969 takeover of Alcatraz Island was to turn it into an Indian City with its own school, healthcare clinic, American Indian spiritual center and Native-run businesses. Indian cities had already grown organically within places like Brooklyn, where Oakes grew up, as well as in cities like Minneapolis and San Francisco where Native people lived after being relocated from reservations during the 1950s.
The phenomenon of the Indian City was a response to the attempt by the federal government to destroy the sovereignty of Native nations through termination and relocation policies. Thousands of Native people found themselves awash in large cities without jobs, money or cultural support. Many fell prey to alcohol, drugs and crime. They came from many different tribes and traditions, yet shared this common plight.
When Oakes arrived in San Francisco’s Mission District, where a Native American neighborhood was already thriving, he recognized it as an Indian City just like Little Caughnawaga in Brooklyn. He fit right in.
The Indians who built Manhattan
The Akwesasne Mohawk (St. Regis) Reservation straddles the U.S./Canadian border in upstate New York. Men from the tribe have a history of ironworking that goes back to 1851 when Mohawk men were hired to work construction on Victoria Bridge near Montreal. Later, when the construction boom came to Manhattan in the early 20th century, Mohawk ironworkers and their families came with it.
Thousands of Mohawk families migrated back and forth between their reservation and the city. An Indian City grew up in Brooklyn with Native-owned grocery stores, special churches, civic and political organizations and union offices that served the Native community.
In 1968 when Oakes departed Brooklyn, he left behind a failed marriage and an estranged relationship with his son and father. Like so many others, he decided to start over and the winds of social change blowing through the turbulent sixties carried him to the center of a new Indian City. This one was in San Francisco’s Mission District where political organizations like the Black Panther Party, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Brown Berets and the NAACP had offices.
But to Oakes, it was just like the Mohawk City in Brooklyn he was familiar with. What’s more, he arrived armed with knowledge gained on his road trip.
“He would stop at reservations along the way at Indian communities,” Blansett explained. “He would ask about other people’s histories and how termination or relocation was affecting them. He was creating his own Indian studies classes.”
The rise of intertribalism
As a result, Oakes knew the issues facing Indians both on the reservation and in the city. He knew the devastation the government policies of termination and relocation had caused, the drug and alcohol abuse, the crime, the violence and despair. He knew it because he lived it.
But unlike most of his contemporaries, Oakes knew the value of different groups working together. He witnessed it happen both on his reservation and in the city. So as a passionate yet soft-spoken leader, he helped promote a coalition politic among the various Native and non-Native political groups in San Francisco. He believed in the strength of tribes working together, yet still maintaining their separate identities, which is the essence of intertribalism.
Oakes’s life prepared him to enter San Francisco’s Indian City with a vision of what needed to be done: Create a special Indian City where any Native person from any tribe could come, live, work, participate in Native ceremonies, receive help and encouragement, and most importantly, feel accepted.
Fighting declensionist narrative
The takeover and occupation of Alcatraz Island was a beacon to urban Native people all over the country and inspired similar takeovers and occupations of places like Fort Lawton in Seattle, the Puyallup fishing camp in Tacoma, as well as the Pit River occupation of Pacific Gas and Electric land and the Elem Pomo occupation of Rattlesnake Island.
But many point to the accidental death of Oakes’s 13-year-old daughter Yvonne during the occupation and Oakes’s subsequent departure from the island as a sign of the movement’s failure. They point out the later degradation of the occupation when drugs began to appear.
Blansett says this is a colonist technique to give the impression the movement made progress but ultimately failed, something he calls “declensionist narrative.” He points out the story of Richard Oakes and the Alcatraz takeover was actually a hopeful one.
“He began inspiring all those around him and instilling that hope,” Blansett said. “It’s a hope that still is on that island and that island is still a symbol of Red Power. It’s still a symbol for hope.”
At a time when hundreds of Native nations were at the edge of the abyss due to brutal government policies, Oakes and his contemporaries such as LaNada Means, Russell Means and John Trudell, showed Native people through the Alcatraz occupation they can fight back non-violently and make a difference. Oakes famously wrote, “Alcatraz is not an island. It’s an idea.”
That idea lives on in the intertribal coalitions such as the one that formed during the Standing Rock standoff. The legacy of Richard Oakes, the Akwesasne street fighter turned non-violent intertribal leader empowers Indigenous resistance movements to this day.
Frank Hopper is a Tlingit, Kaagwaantaan, freelance writer, born in Juneau, Alaska, and raised in Seattle. He now lives in Tacoma.