Photo by Alex Radelich on Unsplash

Richard Oakes and the Takeover of Fort Lawton

Kent Blansett—

On Sunday at 3 a.m. Richard Oakes and ninety other members of UIAT [United Indians of All Tribes] assembled at a rendezvous point in downtown Seattle. A veteran and leader of the Alcatraz takeovers, Oakes must have been transported back to the three attempts it had taken IAT to secure the former island prison in the bay. His presence, along with other IAT members, offered newcomers a sense of unity, authenticity, and direction. 

At five o’clock, several reporters joined the occupiers before they headed out in three successive waves of car caravans in an effort not to draw the attention of local authorities. Instead of an approach by boat, for this occupation Oakes traveled comfortably in a car in the still and calm of an early morning. Each caravan traveled to the southern end of the military base before quietly parking in residential neighborhoods. After exiting their cars, large searchlights could be seen slowly circulating throughout the entire military base. It was a windy night as Richard Oakes and others moved along the western shoreline of Shilshole Bay beneath the dim light of a crescent moon and stars. Many of the occupiers were wrapped in blankets for warmth. They moved quietly, carrying bedrolls, provisions, and supplies. As they neared a residential area the people moved undetected between walls and over fences as residential wind chimes concealed their every step.

Finally, they made it up the steep incline and next to a three-hundred foot ridge overlooking the glistening waves of Puget Sound. Quickly, organizers assembled and lifted the foundational lodge poles before a large canvas cover was secured around the lodge. For organizers it was a significant gesture: to highlight a Native architectural form and a universally recognized symbol of Indigeneity. Raising the lodge demonstrated a long-term commitment and claim as the original title holders to Fort Lawton. Oakes gathered in with everyone drawing heat from a campfire that sparked against a blackened sky. After forty- five minutes of freedom, the occupation force was spotted by a patrol jeep. Singers began to lift their voices, which provided strength and resolve to all the protesters—some danced while others remained still, gathering their wits for what was about to play out. It was not long before a military force of fifty soldiers arrived in full riot gear and started to march toward the encampment of men, women, and children. The protesters acted as a unified body, as everyone simultaneously sat on the ground. Together they invoked their right to civil disobedience. In a repeat of a few days ago, soldiers grabbed and lifted the limp bodies of the protesters, who were carried and then loaded onto the backs of two Army transport trucks.

The tiny brig at the fort began to overflow with prisoners, and soon they ran out of space as occupiers pushed against the bars of the small 12-by-4-foot cells. One witness stated, “As they stood and sat in the crowded brig of the abandoned post, Oakes used his gift for oratory to encourage and inspire the activists.”His voice conveyed a unique form of confidence, that of a leader who clearly understood the emotion, time, patience, and sacrifice it required for activists to lead a liberation movement. The crowded military brig fell to silence when he spoke. Oakes had been a negotiator all of his life, moving between gangs and police, ironworkers and foremen, students and administrators, protesters and politicians; for him, this situation was all too familiar. Tensions escalated as the occupiers pushed officers back to the booking hall, where they witnessed the physical abuse of fellow protesters. One witness saw a woman being inappropriately handled by disgruntled officers. The crowded brig grew loud in protest over the brutality they had collectively witnessed. Outside the brig, officers tauntingly jammed their fists into the air and mockingly displayed the victory sign with their hands. By midday, representatives from the Seattle Human Rights Commission had arrived at the base in order to observe and report any prisoner abuse.

After over six hours locked in the stockade, the prisoners were finally released. Many of the occupiers received trespass offenses for failing to observe their previous expulsion orders. Soldiers rotated dropping prisoners off at one of two main gates. Documentary filmmaker Carol Burns, who would release her fishing rights documentary As Long as the Rivers Run a year later, had her cameras rolling and captured Richard Oakes’s release from the stockade on film. As he departed the military jeep escort, Oakes began a walk toward freedom. On the other side of the gate cheers rang out from a large crowd of protesters and spectators. Suzette (Bridges) Mills counted this as her favorite memory of Oakes: 

He was a dynamic person, tall and handsome. . . .You cleared a path for him. He was not loud; he was very calm, and things he said about the struggle all fell into place. He was a great leader; he was down to earth. He tried to see and understand what you were really trying to say and he put a lot of thought into where we wanted to go. I was proud of Richard when everyone came out of Fort Lawton. These guys went to jail; the energy behind it was exciting . . . especially the amount of people it took to haul him into that jail. I am proud of that unity, we needed to have that for [our] people.

After his release from the stockade, Oakes traveled back to San Francisco in order to participate in further liberation and reclamation movements occurring throughout northern California.

From Journey to Freedom by Kent Blansett. Originally published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Kent Blansett, a Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Shawnee, and Potawatomi descendant, is associate professor of Indigenous studies and history at the University of Kansas.

Further Reading:

Recent Posts

All Blogs