In 1969, charismatic Native American activist Richard Oakes—the face of the “Red Power” movement—led the nonviolent occupation of Alcatraz: a protest of the U.S. government’s treatment of Indigenous people, and an act to reclaim Ohlone land. At 30, his life was cut short: he was shot and killed in the woods of rural Sonoma County by a white man who claimed self-defense. By the late ’70s, Oakes’ name faded, his work forgotten. Drawing from interviews with family members and law enforcement officials and hundreds of government documents and secret FBI files, Jason Fagone and Julie Johnson meticulously tell Oakes’ story.
Dispatches from a fracturing America spread across the front page of the Chronicle on Nov. 11, 1969. Richard Nixon’s administration railed against anti-war protesters; police in Memphis sprayed tear gas into a crowd of young Black people opposing segregation. But the lead story that day was Alcatraz. “A war party” of 14 “young Indian invaders” had claimed the island, calling themselves the Indians of All Tribes and naming Oakes their “president-elect.”
Celebrities including Jane Fonda and Anthony Quinn soon declared their support, sailing to Alcatraz one day on a boat purchased for the protesters by the band Creedence Clearwater Revival. The occupation was becoming a ’60s event, tugging at politics and pop culture. But another set of visitors went largely unnoticed by the media. In the last weeks of 1969, delegations from tribes across the country journeyed to the island, curious to see what this new nation looked like. Oakes asked these elders for guidance, and they in turn asked for advice on land fights in their own territories.