Richard Oakes (May 22, 1942 – September 20, 1972) was a Mohawk Native American activist who promoted the fundamental idea that Native peoples have a right to sovereignty, justice, respect and control over their own destinies. His legacy reflects the struggles of Native peoples and all people to maintain their land, identity, and lifeways.
Richard Oakes was born on May 22, 1942 in Akwesane, New York. He spent most of his childhood fishing and planting beans like many of his previous ancestors. Oakes started working at a local dock area, St. Lawrence Seaway, but unfortunately was laid off at the age of sixteen. It was then that Oakes decided to enter another profession. Oakes started working as a high steelworker, which was a job that entailed a great deal of traveling. While working on the Newport, Rhode Island Bridge, Oakes met and married an Italian/English woman from Bristol, Rhode Island. They had one son, Bryan Oakes was born in June 1968. Oakes left the two, divorcing his wife, and travelled west. Through his travels, Oakes reached San Francisco in the early 1960s. After arriving at San Francisco, he decided to enroll himself in college at San Francisco State University. While studying at SFSU, Oakes worked as a bartender at the Mission District of San Francisco which brought him in contact with the local Indian communities.
Oakes was disappointed in the classes that were offered and he went on to work with an Anthropology professor to change that. Oakes played an integral part in creating one of the first Native American studies departments in the nation. He developed the initial curriculum and encouraged other American Indians to enroll at San Francisco State University. At the very same time, the Mohawk National Council was forming and traveling in troupes to fight oppression of Mohawk religion by means of peaceful protest, which they called White Roots of Peace. Spring 1969, Oakes met the members of the White Roots of Peace who encouraged him to take a stand and fight for what he believed in. Oakes had also gained the support of many students. These two events proved to be the culmination of the Occupation of Alcatraz.
As a Mohawk Indian, Oakes was a strong supporter of Native American rights. He believed that Native American people have a right to their land and identity and that they deserve respect, justice and control.