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.
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