In the fall of 1969, Richard Oakes, a 27-year-old citizen of the Mohawk nation and student, stood on the grounds of the former prison on Alcatraz Island. In front of a group of clamoring reporters, he began to read out loud from a proclamation: “We, the Native Americans, reclaim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery. We wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with the Caucasian inhabitants of this land.”
Oakes and a group of fellow Indigenous activists, some with their families, sought to reclaim the unused federal land. He told the reporters, “We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for twenty-four dollars in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago.”
The dream was to turn Alcatraz Island into an Indigenous mecca where Native people of all tribes would be welcomed. The activists wanted to build a university, a spiritual center and, even a restaurant—fully operated by Indigenous people. The occupation of Alcatraz Island would become one of the most important actions of the Red Power Movement in the late 1960s. Richard Oakes was a leader in this Indigenous movement, which strived to better the living conditions of Native people and strengthen their cultural ties.
Six weeks into the occupation of Alcatraz, Oakes’ daughter died tragically on the island. The Oakes family moved off the island and tried to find a way to move forward. Richard Oakes continued to defend Native land rights, all the way up until his untimely death at age 30. While his life was cut short and the Alcatraz occupation only lasted almost a year and a half, Richard Oakes and his fellow occupiers helped set the foundation for future intertribal movements.
Featured illustration by Alexander Charner.