Compiled by Dianne Meili
Lakota activist and poet John Trudell said that when he buried his wife and three children, he became the earth that received them.
His family, along with his mother-in-law, died in a house fire he maintained to his death was set by the FBI in 1979 to silence him and AIM, the American Indian Movement.
Known for his peaceful opposition to unjust government policy towards Indigenous people—and as someone who had a key role in every significant event of his time having to do with equal rights for Native Americans—John also advocated for the earth because “the natural world has a right to existence and we are only a small part of it.”
Questioning society’s material addiction and misled priorities, he dedicated his life to Indigenous human rights and land issues.
His intelligent wit and outspoken lobbying also made him one of the FBI’s most wanted.
“After he lost his family, we never saw him, and he went into himself. That’s when his anger and sorrow began to come out in the poetry most people know him for,” said his half-sister Edna Baumann-Trudell. John, by this time, had retreated to Vancouver, trying unsuccessfully to obtain asylum and refugee status in Canada.
Lengthy gaps had always punctuated reunions between John and his birth family.
“He thought he was being followed by the FBI and he didn’t want to put any of us in danger,” Baumann-Trudell said. But she remembers her kid brother as a quick-talker who could get anybody to do anything.
“He got my sister to do his chores by telling her he didn’t know how to sweep and he wanted her to demonstrate. By the time she finished, the job was done and he skipped off. He was always doing stuff like that. Smart as a fox. And with a wicked sense of humour.”
Born on Feb. 15, 1946 in Omaha, Nebraska, John was raised by a truck-driving Santee Sioux father, Clifford Trudell, and a Mexican Indian mother who died in childbirth when he was only six.
“He was your typical boy who hated school,” said Baumann-Trudell. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy at 17 in 1963 to get away from book learning; upon returning to civilian life he went to California, got married, and trained for a career in radio and broadcasting.”
His life took a turn when students and organizers occupied Alcatraz Island in 1969. For eight months, the group – calling themselves “Indians of All Tribes” – held the rock “legally”, based on the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868, which stated any abandoned federal property would revert to the Indian Nations.
Using his radio experience, John fuelled the Native American rights movement on “Radio Free Alcatraz”. A compelling speaker, he became the voice of the occupation, and gained national attention. The occupation fell apart in 1971—as did his marriage — without having gained ground on its demands to government. But, it produced AIM.
First, the activists gained a profile protesting the dropped-charges against two brothers who beat 51-year-old Raymond Yellow Thunder to death in a bar in 1972. They scattered after a take-over of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building shortly after.
Re-uniting in 1973 for the occupation of Wounded Knee village along with the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights organization, AIM — based in Minneapolis, Minnesota — hit the headlines, with John acting as its chairman and national spokesperson. He relinquished the position in 1979.
This was the time he lost his family to a fire in his wife’s parents’ home on the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada. Tina Manning perished, along with his children Ricarda Star, Sunshine Karma, Eli Changing Sun, unborn son Josiah Hawk, and Tina’s mother Leah Hicks Manning.
The family was known to have enemies within local law enforcement, but John believed the fire was “set up” by the FBI as a strategy to silence his protest of the Bureau’s abuses toward AIM and Native Americans.
Indeed, the FBI tagged him as “extremely eloquent, therefore extremely dangerous” in an early memo within the 17,000-page dossier they kept on him, one of the longest in history. Though he hired a private investigator to determine the cause of the fire, no cause was ever found.
The numbness he felt after the tragedy receded as he began to write, a talent that made him famous.
“I didn’t even know what reality was … then these lines came into my head,” John said in the 2005 documentary “Trudell”, by Heather Rae.
He explained that what others came to know as poetry was actually “hanging-on” lines given to him by the spirit of his dead wife Tina. “She gave me the lines to follow … so I won’t fall completely … that feeling of falling apart, it doesn’t go away,” he added.
After publishing “Living in Reality”, a small, pocket-sized book called a chapbook in 1982, he began putting his poetry to traditional Aboriginal music, sparking a spoken word movement some say is a continuation of Indigenous oral tradition.
He gained the attention of musician Jackson Browne, and the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson. Peter Gabriel and the band Midnight Oil also invited him onstage with them.
John and his band Bad Dogs released their "Blue Indians" recording in 1999, which won a Native American Music Award, while his book “Stickman: Poems, Lyrics, Talks” gained him international success that same year.
United States popular music critic Neal Ullestad said of Trudell’s live performances, “This isn’t simply pop rock with Indian drums and chants added. It’s integrated rock and roll by an American Indian with a multi-cultural band directed to anyone who will listen.”
John’s acting career gained him another set of fans, especially when he played the enigmatic, radical activist and shapeshifter Jimmy Looks Twice in 1992’s “Thunderheart” with Val Kilmer and Graham Greene.
John Turdell died from cancer on Dec. 8, 2015.
“My ride’s here. Love life. Love each other,” he said at the end.