Google recognized the late Native American activist Richard Oakes on its homepage Monday with an illustrated image of the man who was shot and killed in Sonoma County in 1972 when he was just 30 years old. The honor came on the day Oakes would have turned 75.
Oakes’ killer, the manager of a YMCA camp near Annapolis in northwest Sonoma County, was acquitted for involuntary manslaughter by an all-white jury at the Sonoma County Superior Court in March 1973.
“We are excited to see Google give him recognition today on his birthday,” said Reno Keoni Franklin, chairman of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, by email. “His passing still haunts us, and the decision to let his killer go is a sad example of the type of injustices that he fought so hard against.”
Oakes, who was raised on the Mohawk Indian reservation in upstate New York, rose to prominence in the late 1960s. He helped create one of the first Native American Studies departments in the county while a student at San Francisco State University.
Oakes went on to lead the occupation of Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay in November 1969 with the demand that the federal government return the island to Native peoples. Young, handsome and well spoken, Oakes was the initial face of the occupation.
But in January 1970, his 13-year-old stepdaughter fell to her death on the island, prompting Oakes and his wife, Annie, a member of the Kashia Pomo Tribe in Sonoma County, to leave. The occupation continued until federal authorities forced the remaining activists off Alcatraz in June 1971.
Google regularly acknowledges often overlooked historical figures with its homepage logo called a “doodle.” Other notable, yet not well known, people recognized by Google this year include Bangladeshi structural engineer Fazlur R. Khan, pioneering actor and filmmaker Mary Pickford and inventor of the waterproof coat Charles Macintosh.
“Although Richard didn’t succeed in gaining the deeds to Alcatraz for his people, he brought their issues into the media spotlight and made a substantial impact on the treatment of American Indians in the US,” a Google blog post said.
After the Alcatraz occupation, Oakes spent the final year of his life on the Kashia reservation with his wife and family in Sonoma County. He remained active in fighting for tribal land rights in Sonoma County and throughout Northern California.
According to media accounts, Oakes’ slaying stemmed from a dispute with Michael Morgan, the manager of a YMCA camp, over hunting on the YMCA property and Morgan’s alleged treatment of young tribal members.
On Sept. 22, 1972, Oakes confronted Morgan, who shot Oakes in the chest with a 9 mm pistol. Oakes died where he was shot, just off Skaggs Springs Road. Morgan, who was charged with involuntary manslaughter, claimed self-defense even though Oakes did not have a gun at the time and did not brandish a weapon. He was acquitted of the charge.
“In a case like this if an Indian had shot a white man, do you think they would have come out with the same verdict?” Oakes’ widow, Annie Oakes, asked a Press Democrat reporter in 1973 after Morgan was set free.
“No,” she said, answering her question.