Native Activist Richard Oakes Honored with Google Doodle

By Sameer Rao May 22, 2017

As Native communities continue fighting environmental and political threats to their autonomy, Google honors Mohawk activist Richard Oakes with a Google Doodle today (May 22).

Time notes that Oakes was born on the Akwesasne reservation, a Mohawk tribal land in upstate New York and southern Quebec, in 1942. He moved west at age 18 to attend San Francisco State University (SFSU), where his antipathy towards then-current Native studies curricula led him to co-develop the nation’s first American Indian studies program. The university further preserved his legacy by naming a multicultural center after him in 1998. 

His activism didn’t stop there. As described by the SFSU center bearing his name, Oakes worked with local Native peoples and students to occupy Alcatraz Island from 1969 to 1971:

The goals of the Native inhabitants of Alcatraz Island were to gain a deed to the island, establish an American Indian university, cultural center and museum. While Oakes and his followers did not succeed in obtaining the island, as a result of their occupation, the U.S. government policy of terminating American Indian tribes ended and was replaced by a policy of Native self-determination.

Native scholar Dean Chavers wrote in Indian Country Today Media Network that the occupation compelled a federal response to Native communities’ demands for restitution, including the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, which affirmed Native self-rule and reversed the longtime U.S. government policy of terminating treaties with Native tribes. 

Oakes continued working with local Native communities, assisting the Pit River Tribe with recovering tribal land in Northern California soon after the occupation.

YMCA camp manager Michael Morgan shot Oakes dead in 1972 after the activist confronted him for his treatment of Native children. Oakes was only 30 years old. 

Today’s Doodle arrives on what would have been Oakes’ 75th birthday. Google features his likeness in front of the Akwesasne reservation, Alcatraz Island and Pit River.