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The Redskins Fight and the Legacy of Richard Oakes

Emil Photo Again Edited 61b7dabb61239

Last week, I was in a room at San Francisco State University named for Richard Oakes. (Please resist asking, “Richard Who?”)

It’s amazing how even some young people at the school, and even some regular folks in the city I asked at random, had no idea who Oakes was.

I’ll get to that, shortly. But first, this lack of awareness for Oakes struck me as a failure of a generation of diversity in higher ed.

It also explained to me why our society continues to struggle over the Redskin name.

Last week, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s declared “Redskin” disparaging and lifted protections on the use of the name. It sets up a potential free-for-all. Hard to imagine Washington team owner Dan Snyder and other NFL owners wanting to share their profits from the merchandising of racism with others, especially counterfeiters.

For an unabashed capitalist like Snyder there can be nothing pleasurable or good about “unprotected” Redskin use. If doing the morally right thing isn’t enough, other NFL owners could use lost profits to serve as the fig leaf that forces Snyder into red-faced submission soon.

But if that doesn’t work, then I guess this thing really is likely to go all the way. Snyder seems hell-bent on turning himself into the General Custer of the racist mascot issue. It’s a losing proposition, historically, as we all know.

But judging from his past actions, Snyder sounds like the kind of guy who thinks it’s cool to have your very own “last stand.”

To go along with all his racist merchandise.

Sounds like the act of someone of Custer’s generation. But at 49, Snyder is a young man of the generation that should have been impacted by someone like Richard Oakes. If only Snyder took a Native American History class before he dropped out of the University of Maryland (if they had one at the time).

Or he could have transferred to San Francisco State, which brings us to Oakes.

Oakes was one of the pioneers in championing the history and the voice of all ethnic peoples in America. A true Mohawk Native American warrior from upstate New York, Oakes made his name after a bold move to take back the land, specifically Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. He swam to the island and occupied it with other activists from 1969 to 1971. Their goals were simple: to own the island and establish an Indian university and cultural center.


The island became a utopian community, but it soon fell apart when Oakes left the island after the accidental death of his 13-year-old stepdaughter.


Still, the Oakes-led occupation was not seen as a failure, but rather as a turning point in the federal government’s stance on Indian self-determination. He also was able to help shape a Native American curriculum at SF State, which indeed established a multicultural center in his name.


That Oakes also died years later, a victim of a handgun, makes it more than a coincidence for me.


I saw it as an act of spiritual symbolism that my cousin Stephen’s posthumous ceremony took place at SFSU in the center named for Oakes. That’s the kind of serendipitous connection one can find, but only if one has an openness and appreciation for diversity.


I found it reinforced in me last week. I hope Dan Snyder finds it soon.


Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund ( Like him at and on Twitter @emilamok.

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