John Trudell, noted activist, poet and Native thinker, walked on this morning after a lengthy bout with cancer. His family included some of his last messages to Indian country in a press release. Among them: “I want people to remember me as they remember me.”
John Trudell was a Santee Dakota activist, artist, actor, and poet, who led a life dedicated to indigenous human rights, land and language issues. He helped spark a spoken word movement that is a continuation of Native American oral traditions. He walked on December 8 at the age of 69.
Born on February 15, 1946 in Omaha, he spent his early years living on the Santee Reservation in northern Nebraska. His father was Santee and his mother was of Mexican Indian heritage. He had a normal life until his mother died at age 6, and the new rock and roll music resonated with him from ages 9-12. He said high school was not good for him and would enlist in the U.S. Navy from 1963 until 1967, to get away. He married Fenicia “Lou” Ordonez in 1968 in California, briefly attended college, thinking he would go into radio and broadcasting.
Everything changed in 1969 when Native American students and organizers, Trudell among them, occupied Alcatraz Island from November 20, 1969 to June 11, 1970. That group became “Indians of All Tribes,” and they issued the manifesto, We Hold the Rock, and eventually the book, Alcatraz is Not an Island. The Alcatraz Occupation became an incubator for the nascent Native American rights movement, including the American Indian Movement (AIM) in Minneapolis. The legal basis for this occupation was the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868, which said that any abandoned federal property would revert to the Indian Nations. This treaty’s legality would also inspire many more actions across Indian country. Trudell has always maintained that all these political actions were not just moral, ethical issues but were legal issues, according to Native treaty rights and federal trust responsibilities.
Trudell used his broadcasting experience on the airwaves of “Radio Free Alcatraz” (a clip from the program can be heard on the 2005 documentary Trudell). His marriage would end during this period as he become a leading Native spokesman attracting national attention. The negotiations over Alcatraz, the proposed Indian Center and the occupation itself fell apart in 1971, but so many names of Native activists, organizers, artists, writers and actors from that time would become prominent in the ensuing struggles, movement and documentation.
Events would cascade from actions related to the Raymond Yellow Thunder beating in 1972, to the nationally organized cross-country caravan Trail of Broken Treaties in 1972 that ended with the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C. and the issuance of The 20 Points Manifesto. The scattering of activists after the BIA take-over led to AIM actions at the Custer County Courthouse, followed by the 1973 Liberation/Occupation of Wounded Knee village by AIM and the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization. In 1973, Trudell became the national spokesperson for AIM, a position that he held until 1979.
Everybody seemed to have a personal relationship with Trudell, even if you met him only once. Some folks who never met him still have that same feeling that he knew their story because they could hear it resonate in his songs, poetry, and movies. While poetry editor at Akwesasne Notes, I reviewed Trudell’s first poetry chapbook, “Living in Reality: Songs Called Poems” (1982). It was a simple chapbook produced straight from “Indian country,” on Franklin Avenue, Minneapolis. My review basically stated, don’t worry that it didn’t sound like “modern” poetry, Trudell had found a voice and had tapped into the collective consciousness; that no matter how well this collection of poems sold, Trudell’s voice would be big, listened to and embraced. What he had to say was that good, it was that needed. Nowadays we must come up with descriptions TO define his voice and presence, words like empowering, authentic, intelligent, inspirational and necessary. He believed in the Spoken Word, that it had power. He didn’t think we should call our music and poetry “political or protest,” as those were labels from those in control. He called them cultural realities and artistic statements: “We are speaking our truth, bringing our energy. Music is its own energy, it’s good and positive in strengthening our communities.”
The FBI agreed. In the documentary Trudell by Heather Rae (2005), they quote an FBI memo early on: “He is extremely eloquent, therefore extremely dangerous.” They compiled a 17,000-page dossier on him, one of the longest in its history. Trudell said in the documentary, Incident at Oglala, “All I did was talk, and they cracked down hard just for that.” Trudell was referring to a pivotal And Cataclysmic Moment in his life: the deaths of his wife Tina, their children Ricarda Star, Sunshine Karma, Eli Changing Sun, unborn son Josiah Hawk, and Tina’s mother Leah Hicks-Manning, in a suspicious fire in their parents’ house in February 1979 at the Duck Valley Reservation, Nevada. Trudell burned an American flag in protest on the steps of the FBI building in Washington, D.C., within 24 hours of the house fire. His family was known to have local enemies in law enforcement, but they could not prove it was arson even after the private investigator he hired said that the official version was practically impossible.
The period that followed brought most people to identify with the poet, artist and thinker called John Trudell. It is interesting to note that some dubbed him an ex-activist but that is one of those labels he criticized, and he would actually go on to influence another generation of activists and ordinary people. Many artists now use the phrase “Art Saved Me,” and it had to be something like that for Trudell, because after the tragedy he was compelled to write poetry. He said it just came to him, like Tina was talking to him and he was just “following the lines.”
“I didn’t even know what reality was… then these lines came into my head and something said don’t stop writing. I started to write my lines, they’re called poems but in reality they are lines for me to hold onto, my hanging-on lines, it was real to me, it was a parting gift from Tina. Whatever happens just follow the writing and I might be able to find some kind of center. Whatever my future is… to see how long I get to participate… she gave me the lines to follow… so I won’t fall completely… that feeling of falling apart, it doesn’t go away.” – John Trudell, from the 2005 Heather Rae documentary, “Trudell.”
He issued the chapbook, Living in Reality in 1982. That same year he began recording his poetry to traditional Native music by talking his friend Quiltman into backing him on drum and vocals. In 1983, he released his debut album Tribal Voice on his own Peace Company label. His relationship with Jackson Browne led him to other supporters like Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, Indigo Girls, John Fogerty, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan. Legendary Kiowa guitarist Jesse Ed Davis came up to him in 1986 and said, “I can turn your poems into songs.” They recorded three albums during this time. AKA Graffiti Man was released in 1986, dubbed the best album of the year by Bob Dylan, followed by But This Isn’t El Salavdor and Heart Jump Bouquet, both in 1987.
In 1988, Jesse Ed Davis passed away due to heroin addiction. Trudell was stunned. However, he was able to connect with other performers who kept him out there on stage, like Midnight Oil’s From Diesel and Dust tour and Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD tour. That era is known for the breakthrough of contemporary Native music, yet its main performers, Buddy Red Bow, Jim Pepper and Jesse Ed Davis all died at the height of their popularity due to ailments such as alcoholism and drug addiction. Trudell, however, followed more along the path of Floyd Red Crow Westerman, who walked on in 2007 after a slow deterioration of health.
Trudell’s spoken word and music catalog is formidable. The title track of Fables and Other Realities (1991) jumps at the listener from the speaker and screen thanks to Trudell’s urgent, rhythmed delivery, a style he would use in future songs and videos. It actually prefigures NDN rap and hip-hop beats. The album kicked off a good collaboration period with Mark Shark and other musicians. A.K.A. Graffiti Man from 1992 was remixed as a best of compilation in 1992 to critical acclaim, as was Johnny Damas & Me in 1994, which continued the positive reception. Trudell embarked on another pivotal period when he started up his Bad Dog touring band in 1999. He always said he wanted to bring Bad Dog everywhere with him from then on, but most times people were happy just to hear him speak. He and the band produced Blue Indians that year winning NAMMY awards; 1999 also brought international attention with Stickman: Poems, Lyrics, Talks edited by Paola Igliori. Further success in 2001 came with Bone Days, which was produced by actress Angelina Jolie. Trudell and Bad Dog would release Madness And The Moremes, a double album in 2007, and Crazier Than Hell in 2010.
JT – DNA (Descendant Now Ancestor), 2001, is all spoken word, no music, and represents his more popular speeches and themes. He repeats some of those themes, and adds newer Bad Dog lyrics, in his most recent, Through the Dust, 2014, which features the ambient beats of Swiss producer, Kwest. There’s also the rare CD/vinyl, John Trudell & Bad Dog – Live à Fip, a live album recorded in Paris, France in 2005 that now sells from $70 to $160. In 1992, he also released Children of the Earth: Child’s Voice. Trudell was partnered with Marcheline Bertrand, Angelina Jolie’s mother, as she dealt with cancer, which she succumbed to in 2007. Marcheline and Angelina also executive produced the 2005 documentary with Heather Rae as well.
Trudell’s movie career also created a new generation of fans with feature films like Thunderheart, a 1992 Hollywood thriller by director Michael Apted, who also swung a documentary film into the deal, Incident at Oglala, produced/narrated by Robert Redford. He was also in the 1998 seminal Native-made film, Smoke Signals, written by Sherman Alexie and directed by Chris Eyre. His great line in the film is, “It’s a good day to be indigenous,” in which he is again back to NDN radio roots as DJ Randy Peone of K-REZ. He was also in the Steven Seagal thriller, On Deadly Ground, and played Coyote in Hallmark’s made for TV movie, Dreamkeeper. Incident at Oglala and Trudell were important projects that helped to develop Redford’s Sundance Institute’s Native American Program, as overseen by Bird Runningwater.
Controversy occurred in 2004 when Trudell testified at the trial of AIM members, Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham, who were sentenced to life imprisonment for the kidnapping and murder of Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash. Trudell was boycotted by Native students in Vancouver, British Columbia, and criticized by AIM hardliners. Trudell said it was a confidential matter involving Looking Cloud relieving his conscience and Trudell only talked about it after it was revealed in media accounts.
In constant demand as a speaker, presenter or commentator, he and his fans preferred to post speeches and videos on his website, Facebook or YouTube. His lengthy illness became generally known, and one may assume he was involved in medical marijuana therapy given videos for songs like Wildseed, Grassfire and various Bad Dog concerts and interviews. He has several children, as he has said, “spread around the country so they will always be safe.” His daughters Sage, Song and Star are featured in the 2005 documentary and his daughter Tara and her sisters were at Alcatraz. His youngest boy, Cetan, lives in San Francisco. He was very private about his family life and had managers screening all of his business and social media.
His last big media success was the book, Lines from a Mined Mind: The Words of John Trudell, a collection of 25 years of poetry, lyrics and essays from Fulcrum Publishing, 2008. This collection is a tribute to the man, his legend and legacy. We all felt we knew him. He shared pain, courage, insight and wisdom with all of us. He felt he could mix thoughts, poetry, music and human energy to create… Power. Human Being Power. Some felt him a prophet like Bob Marley, but John also said he was a happy soldier in Elvis Presley’s Army.
Safe journey, brother.
“We are strong again, thank you. Thank you John.”
Alex Jacobs, Mohawk, is a visual artist and poet living in Santa Fe.
John Trudell, an American Indian poet, actor, spoken word artist, and political activist well-known for his involvement with the radical Red Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, died on Tuesday. After a battle with cancer, Trudell died in Santa Clara County, located in Northern California, at the age of 69.
John Trudell’s estate released the following statement on his death:
John Trudell passed away today, December 8, 2015, at his home, surrounded by his family and friends. He entered this dimensional reality on February 15, 1946, and now he has left this dimensional reality. He is survived by his children and grandchildren.
John Trudell’s family asked people to celebrate love and life in honor of John, and to pray and celebrate in their own communities. One of Trudell’s last statements was of appreciation. “I appreciate all of your expressions of concern, and I appreciate all of your expressions of love. It has been like a fire to my heart,” he said. “Thank you all for that fire. But please don’t worry about me.”
Many Americans are unfamiliar with the work of John Trudell and the American Indian Movement (AIM). U.S. history books rarely acknowledge the role of Natives in American history — especially the history of their resistance to colonization in the last 50 years. We should not rely on the oppressors to inform and educate us about the true history of this nation, especially when it comes to the history of Native activism. It is up to us to tell each other’s stories.
Trudell was born in Omaha, Nebraska on February 15, 1946 near the Santee Sioux Reservation. John’s father was Santee Sioux. After serving in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam war, Trudell became active with the American Indian Movement and civil rights battles for Native communities.
John Trudell was a part of the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay by the United Indians of All Tribes. From November 1969 to June 1971, the group occupied the island, calling for the federal government to respect treaty rights and turn the former federal prison over to Native Americans. Trudell hosted a radio broadcast from the island called “Radio Free Alcatraz.”
After the occupation concluded, Trudell went on to serve as national chairman of AIM from 1973 to 1979. Trudell also participated in the nationally organized cross-country caravan, Trail of Broken Treaties, just one week before Election Day in 1972. The caravan ended with the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C.
In 1979, Trudell and other AIM activists went to Washington D.C. to protest the federal government. The activists burned an American flag on the steps of the office of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. At nearly the same time, John Trudell’s pregnant wife, Tina Manning, their three children, and her mother were killed in a mysterious fire at her parents’ home on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Nevada. Trudell and other activists have long suspected government involvement, but the cause of the fire was never officially determined.
“When I got sent up for sixty days, that time in Fargo, I was approached by another inmate, a guy I didn’t know, and he started talking about my public statements. You can’t go around talking that shit, he says, you better get out of the country. You don’t know these crazy bastards [the FBI] – they could kill your wife and children,” John Trudell would later remember.
Shortly after the incident, John Trudell began to make a transition from leading direct action to a focusing on writing poetry and music. “They’re called poems, but in reality they’re lines given to me to hang on to,” Trudell said in the 2005 documentary Trudell. He released more than a dozen albums of spoken word poetry and music. Trudell would also act in several movies, including 1992’s Thunderheart and 1998’s Smoke Signals. Most recently, Trudell and singer Willie Nelson co-founded Hempstead Project Heart, which promotes the legalization of hemp cultivation for industrial uses.
John Trudell on the power of hemp:
During his time as an activist, Trudell amassed a reported 17,000 page file from the FBI. Alternet reported:
An excerpt from his file, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act in 1986, reads:
“Trudell is an intelligent individual and eloquent speaker who has the ability to stimulate people into action. Trudell is a known hardliner who openly advocates and encourages the use of violence [i.e., armed self-defense] although he himself never becomes involved in the fighting …Trudell has the ability to meet with a group of pacifists and in a short time have them yelling and screaming ‘right-on!’ In short, he is an extremely effective agitator.“
Speaking to Phoenix New Times about his file, John Trudell said, “What my FBI file reflects to me is their absurdity. Seventeen thousand pages is a lot of trees to assassinate to spy on someone.”
I have been following John Trudell’s work for the last couple of years and had been communicating with his manager for almost a year in an attempt to schedule an interview with this prolific man. Unfortunately, we were never able to connect. If I had had the opportunity to tell him directly, I would have let him know that his work and the work of Native and indigenous activists of the last 50 years will not be forgotten. More than that, I would let him know that his work has inspired me and many others not to forget the battles and struggles of Natives over the last 500 years.
I highly recommend listening to any of his speeches on YouTube. I promise you will be inspired and moved by this powerful being’s words. I leave you with a quote from one of Trudell’s talks, where he reminds us of our innate power within and that we cannot fight the oppressors on their terms. We must build the next stage of freedom and evolution if we are to have a future.
I remember in the 60’s and the 70’s I heard all this stuff about Power to the People, and I never understood because everyone was talking about Power to the People and they were talking about demonstrating, they were talking about VOTE, They were talking about DEALING ON THE TERMS OF THE OPPRESSOR.
Our power will come back to us, our sense of balance will come back to us when we go back to the natural way of protecting and honoring the Earth. If we have forgotten how to do it, and if we think it looks overwhelming and we can never accomplish it, then all we have to do – each of us as an individual can go out and find some spot on the Earth that we can relate to.
Feel that energy, feel that power. That’s where our safety will come from. The Earth will take care of us. We have to understand that the American Corporate State will not take care of us. They do not care about us. – John Trudell
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He was a noted activist, poet and Native thinker, and on December 8, 2015 John Trudell left Turtle Island to join the spirit world. The influential Native philosopher touched many throughout Indian country and beyond.
Today, Trudell’s family released the following statement:
“We know all the people who love John want to know about plans and how to pay their respects. John left clear instructions for his passage and for what he wanted to happen after he crossed over. He did not want a funeral or any kind of single gathering. He also did not want his family to write a standard style obituary or ‘toot his horn.’ He didn’t want to tell people how to remember him.
“His wishes are for people to celebrate life and love, pray and remember him in their own ways in their own communities.
“With love for all.”
One of our beloved messengers left this world December 8, 2015
In the early hours of the morning,
When the dreamers and teachers walk the earth
Speaking to us as we imagine the new day into being,
All of us here essential to the story in the great imagining.
They took John with them. It was time.
And he was ready, he’d said his goodbyes, only for now
Because we live in eternity together.
And was circled by those he loved: his children,
People whose lives he shared from his many travels
In this world to speak and sing the dreams and visions
He’d been given to take care of, to share.
And contingents of young warriors, from all over the country
Including Hickory Ground or Oce Vpofv people, from one of the last
Calls John answered for justice from the East, and other groups
From the North, West, and South arrived to pay respect
Because he was one of them, grown older and wise
After paying the terrible costs of being human
In a society broken by lies, greed, and our failures.
Everything has a cost.
Carrying a vision out of such massive tests demands the highest price of a prophet.
And we are human beings only after all.
And some visions are relentless.
To know the images and words you have to live them.
And they will not let you rest.
In every season are given messengers.
They rise up to carry a voice for a nation, a people, a time.
They emerge through holes from broken history, from bloody grounds,
stirred from the collective dream field by a need to rectify
the difference between earthly injustice and holy vision.
John Trudell was born of the need for someone among us
to stand and speak, from the Santee Sioux
Out of the heartbreak of this country, on February 15, 1946.
He grew up like other young native men, wandering these lands
Fed by water, trees, stones, and education that didn’t include them.
And in the middle of the age, when natives began gathering
Together from their tribal fires
Around the common need to affirm our mutual presence
As caretakers of our lands, our families, our existence as distinct nations
in an age of the rise of multinational corporate overlords,
and the continued loss and theft of our children to the greed carnival,
John stood up with his generation of change makers,
Questioners of evil, and warriors for justice.
He was there at Alcatraz, on the Trail of Broken Treaties, he traveled widely
as a wise witness in Indian country, in the aftermath of the aftermath
as the people stood for water rights, human rights, the right
to be human in a time when people were forgetting
What it means to be human.
“We must go beyond the arrogance of human rights,” he reminded us.
“We must go beyond the ignorance of civil rights.
We must step into the reality of natural rights
because all of the natural world has a right to existence
and we are only a small part of it.
There can be no trade off.”
We need these words more than ever now.
He was John Lennon, the son of Crazy Horse, Dylan of the urban rez, the rez rez, the world rez.
“I am just a human being trying to make it in a world that is very rapidly losing its understanding of being human.”
John knew that art and culture were the ways to raise us up.
Our creations hold memory so we can know who we were, who
We are, and how we are becoming—he said that the artists and warriors of the heart
are the poets, musicians, rappers, dancers, actors, painters... those who create.
He was the original thinker who said:
“Think more. Believe less.” (Believe has the word “lie” in it.)
“We don’t need more leaders. What we need are thinkers.”
“We need to make peace with the earth.”
John roused an army of young native spoken word artists, and made it okay for a warrior
To write poetry. Poetry is the love a man and woman make when they create
A planet together. Poetry is a cleansing rain bringing water to a thirsty land.
John said of his poems, “They’re called poems, but in reality they’re lines
Given to me to hang on to.” And hang onto them we did,
from Tribal Voice to Heart Jump Bouquet, to AKA Graffiti Man to Blue Indian, Bone Days, DNA: Descendants Now Ancestors, Madness and the Moremes, Crazier than HeIl, and Wazi’s Dream, and many others.
And hang on to his words we will, for they remind us that:
“No matter what they ever do to us, we must always act for the love of our people and the earth. We must not react out of hatred for those who have no sense.”
These are good words for making a trail through this beloved earth
Into the next world, a road we are all traveling together.
A very human prophet carried these words, to share, for us to continue to share.
Thank you/Mvto for honoring us with your gifts, your smile, your laughter.
John Trudell and his family ask that people pray and celebrate in their own way.
“… I appreciate all of your expressions of love. It has been like a fire to my heart. Thank you all for that fire. But please don’t worry about me, I know what I’m doing…”
We won’t worry. We will look forward to hearing that next concert with you and Jesse Ed Davis in the sky. Don’t look back. Keep going. We will see you on the other side.
Joy Harjo is a member of the Muscogee/Creek Nation, Hickory Ground Ceremonial Ground, and lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her newest collection is a book of poetry, “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings,” from W.W. Norton. You can find her at JoyHarjo.com.