Richard Oakes was a natural born leader whom people followed seemingly on instinct. Thus when he dove into the icy San Francisco Bay in the fall of 1969 on his way to Alcatraz Island, he knew others would have his back. Kent Blansett
tells Richard Oakes’ story in wonderful detail in A Journey to Freedom: Richard Oakes, Alcatraz, and Red Power
(Yale University Press, 2018). Blansett, an associate professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, argues that by understanding Oakes’ life and his movement across the United States in the 1960s, we can better understand the origins of the Red Power movement. Prior to landing in San Francisco, Richard Oakes lived in the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne, a borderland region between Canada and the United States. From there he worked with other Mohawks in the ironwork trade, constructing the New York City skyline, and became a legendary figure in the Indian Cities of Brooklyn and Seattle. Although both his time on Alcatraz and his life ended in tragedy, Oakes’ legacy is lasting and undeniable, as Native people staged fish-ins and occupations across North America based on his inspiring leadership. As Oakes himself put it, “Alcatraz was not an island, but an idea.”
Stephen Hausmann is a doctoral candidate at Temple University and Visiting Instructor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently writing his dissertation, a history of race and the environment in the Black Hills and surrounding northern plains region of South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana.