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Intelligent Channel: Richard Oakes delivering the Alcatraz Proclamation (1969) – from THE EDUCATION ARCHIVE
We Need to Honor Richard Thariwasate Oakes
Monday, September 19, 2022

On September 20, 1972, Richard Thariwasate Oakes was shot and killed by Michael Morgan in Sonoma County, California, the homeland of the Pomo Nation.

Thariwasate was born at Akwesasne in May of 1942, the son of Irene and Arthur Oakes, the grandson of Thomas Foote (my great-uncle); Foote was one of the most skilled lacrosse players of the 20th century.

As a young boy he followed his parents as they moved from Akwesasne to Syracuse. As a teenager he became an ironworker and followed jobs in many cities from the east coast to California. He settled in San Francisco where he met his wife Anna, a member of the Pomo Nation. He adopted her five children before she gave birth to their daughter Fawn.

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Richard was deeply effected by the rise of Mohawk nationalism at Akwesasne. A small group of patriots had re-established the longhouse as they learned the rituals which defined the traditional spiritual customs. Among them were Ray Fadden, Ross and Madeline David, Louis and Eva Point, Mike Boots, Alec Gray, Jimmy Thompson and Frank “Standing Arrow” Johnson. Standing Arrow would take the first dramatic steps towards asserting the ancestral rights of the Mohawk people by reclaiming land in the Mohawk Valley along Schoharie Creek in 1957. Although the Mohawks would be evicted by New York State the fires of activism had been lit.

A decade later the Mohawk Nation Council sanctioned the formation of the touring group White Roots of Peace. The December, 1968 blockade of the International Bridges near Cornwall, Ontario gave birth to Akwesasne Notes, a publication which become the most effective indigenous journal in history. Of those who were present at the beginning of Notes were the artist John Fadden-Kahionhes and Ernie Benedict. It was Benedict who proposed the formation of a northern version of the White Roots, a cultural and political caravan he called the North American Indian Traveling College. It was the Fadden family who led Mohawk students on long tours across the east, meeting other Native people and visiting historic sites.

Akwesasne would become the center for Indigenous activism across North America. Oakes was excited by what was taking place in his home community. He left his job as an ironworker in San Francisco and enrolled at San Francisco State University where he helped create one of the first American Indian studies programs in the United States.

In the late summer of 1969 the White Roots group arrived in the Bay Area. Among that number was Tom Porter-Sakokwanonkwas who recalls the eagerness of Richard to learn more about his heritage and the movement to assert Mohawk rights at Akwesasne. After many days of meeting with Richard the White Roots was ready to leave but urged the young Mohawk man to act on what he had learned.

On November 9, 1969, Thariwasatse did just that by leaping off a sail boat into the frigid Bay waters and swimming to Alcatraz Island, the site of the shuttered federal prison. By doing so he began the contemporary Native rights movement from which all indigenous people have been effected including every casino or tax exempt commercial activity anywhere on aboriginal lands.

Richard would not live to see the effects of his actions. He had replicated the principles espoused by the Mohawk Nation in his Alcatraz Proclamation. Oakes sought, along with the new group Indians of All Tribes, to establish the island as a cultural center, to create employment, to assert treaty rights and to become a national Indian university.

Richard Oakes
Richard Oakes was featured as the Google Doodle on what would have been his 75th birthday on May 22, 2017. Image: Google

This did not happen. Oakes was ambushed and beaten almost to death in San Francisco in 1970. He was partially healed by Mad Bear Anderson, Peter Mitten and Beeman Logan, noted medicine men.

Oakes returned to Akwesasne but the winter was harsh and his wife wanted to return to her family. He went back west and brought with him two Mohawk teenagers, Lloyd Gray and William “Billy” Lazore.

Oakes had not fully recovered from the assault when an incident occurred in September, 1972. After Alcatraz Oakes was deeply involved in the assertion of Native land and political rights along the west coast. He was labelled a troublemaker by some including Michael Morgan, the overseer of a YMCA camp near the Pomo community in Sonoma County. Gray and Lazore were accused of trying to steal horses from the camp. While Gray managed to avoid capture Lazore was held by Morgan and when Richard went to demand his release he was shot and killed. Oakes was unarmed.

His killing led directly to the formation of a national caravan called the Trail of Broken Treaties which has been initially named after Oakes.The caravan attracted International attention as it arrived in Washington, D.C., in late October, 1972. The offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs was occupied, trashed and abandoned. After the BIA takeover came the incident of Wounded Knee in the late winter of 1973 followed by many other land take backs. In 1974 Ganienkeh began when Mohawks occupied a former girls scouts camp in the southwest Adirondacks.

Thasriwasatse changed our culture, our politics, our economies. Yet there is nothing to mark his life at Akwesasne and few of the younger generation know of him. It is time to change this. We need something tangible to honor this man who stood tall when it came to act on his principles and one who gave his life in defense of the people. A scholarship, a road, a building, a park-something where visitors can be reminded of our hometown hero.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is a residential school survivor. He was given the number 4-8-2-738. He serves as the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. He previously served as a Trustee for the National Museum of the American Indian, is a former land claims negotiator for the Mohawk Nation and is the author of numerous books and articles about the Mohawk people. He may be reached via e-mail at: or by calling 315-415-7288.