Richard Oakes the Mohawk and his path to Alcatraz Island

By Doug George- Kanentiio
News From Indian Country Jan. 2010

The Native reclamation of Alcatraz 40 years ago ignited a national movement which reverberates to the current day but for its original hero it cost him not only the life of his daughter but would consume him as well.

Richard Oakes was from Akwesasne raised in the Catholic tradition in families who fished our area's waters and planted crops of corns, beans and squash in much the same manner of our ancestors from hundreds of years ago.

Richard was raised in was a time of historical changes, when the ties of the Christian faith were loosened and our traditional economy devastated by the construction of the St.Lawrence Seaway which brought heavy industry to our pastoral area resulting in contamination of our lands, waters and bodies.

Richard Oakes, (Ranoies was his Mohawk name), was displaced by the Seaway, compelled to find another way of living.  He elected, at 16, to become a high steel worker.

 

This migratory occupation is a dangerous one but has attracted young Mohawk men for generations since Akwesasnorons first took to connecting iron beams across the St. Lawrence in the 1880's thereby becoming the first Onkwehonwe to do so. Though the Mohawks travelled far and wide to practice their skills the men were most likely to return to Akwesasne to raise their families although some elected to find homes in distant places.

Richard took to the roads, laboring in many cities before arriving in San Francisco in the early 60's.  He was not the first Mohawk ironworker in the Bay Region, others had been the area during the 1930's connecting cables for the Golden Gate Bridge but they went home when the job was done.

Richard married into the Pomo Nation, started a family and decided to enroll in college with plans for a career outside of walking along narrow girders hundreds of feet above the streets.

At the same time as he began college a strong wave of Native activism began in the northeast. Taking lessons from the civil rights struggles, Akwesasne Mohawks elected to revive our ancestral traditions by performing ceremonies long suppressed by the Catholic Church and the various external agencies based in Ottawa, Albany to Washington. A united Mohawk Nation was the last thing they wanted to see.

The Mohawk Nation Council formed the cultural travelling troupe White Roots of Peace which crisscrossed the country encouraging Natives to assert their standing as sovereign peoples. We created a newspaper, Akwesasne Notes, which quickly became the most influential publication in Indian Country and a powerful advocate for indigenous nationalism.

But the movement needed a spark lit by a hero. That great man was in San Fancisco.

In the spring of 1969 the White Roots of Peace, arrived in the city. The members met Richard and gave him instruction in the traditions of the Haudenosaunee. He came to see his heritage as a source of pride rather than something to be hidden.  He was encouraged to find a cause, take a stand, become what he was meant to be-a leader of the people.

Richard took our message to heart.  In the fall of 1969 all the right regional factors came into play: a large Bay area Native student population, a vibrant media, a history of political activism throughout the region.

Natives had tried to take back Alcatraz only to be defeated by apathy. This was not the case when Richard's group had the idea of making the abandoned prison into a center for learning, a place of healing. They were not to be held back by fear of arrest or any other physical barrier.

When others hesitated to land at Alcatraz while circling the island in a chartered boat Richard, in typical Mohawk style, tore off his shirt and dove into the Bay waters then swam, backstroke style, to the the former prison site. In those cool waters he liberatedhimself and lit the fires of a revolution.

Richard was attractive to the media. He spoke well, had a powerful presence and was able to provide the vision the Alcatraz occupiers needed. He wanted a Native Peace Corps, a national Native university, a confederacy of Native nations able to defend and expand upon their status as free, independent nations.

Some of his dreams have yet to pass but his standing as the first great Native hero of modern times has not dimmed. 

Richard stayed on Alcatraz for six months, until his daughter Yvonne died after falling from a set of concrete steps.  Shortly after he was viciously beaten and went into a coma but was brought back from near death by two Haudenosaunee healers.  He returned to Akwesasne, carrying his Alcatraz dreams only to return to California when his wife grew homesick.

Richard, however, would die less than three years after he swam to Alcatraz, shot to death in 1972 in an incident which stimulated the Trail of Broken Treaties and then the stand off at Wounded Knee in 1973.

But his visions are timeless and the Rock, his Rock, stands liberated from the ghosts of a terrible past while the Mohawk Nation had the generation's great man.