John Trudell, noted activist, poet and Native thinker, walked on December 8, 2015, 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 became 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 Salvador 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.
This story was originally published on December 9, 2015.