Published on March 1, 2013 by Amy
John Trudell (born February 15, 1946) is an American author, poet, actor, musician, and former political activist. He was the spokesperson for the United Indians of All Tribes’ takeover of Alcatraz beginning in 1969, broadcasting as Radio Free Alcatraz. During most of the 1970s, he served as the chairman of the American Indian Movement, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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After his pregnant wife, three children and mother-in-law were killed in 1979 in a fire at the home of his parents-in-law on the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Nevada, Trudell turned to writing, music and film as a second career. He acted in three films in the 1990s. The documentary Trudell (2005) was made about him and his life as an activist and artist.
Trudell was born in Omaha, Nebraska on February 15, 1946, as the son of a Santee Sioux father and a Mexican mother. He grew up in small towns near the Santee Sioux Reservation in northern Nebraska near the southeast corner of South Dakota. He was educated in local schools and also in Santee Sioux culture.
In 1963 when 17 years old, Trudell dropped out of high school and left the Midwest by joining the US Navy. He served during the early years of the Vietnam War and stayed in the Navy until 1967.
Afterward, he attended San Bernardino Valley College a two-year Community College in San Bernardino, California studying radio and broadcasting. He decided to work through political activism.
After leaving the military, Trudell had become involved in Indian activism. In 1969, he became the spokesperson for the United Indians of All Tribes’ occupation of Alcatraz Island. This was a mostly student-member group that had developed in San Francisco. Trudell went to Alcatraz a week after the occupation started. He used his background in broadcasting and ran a radio station from the island through a cooperative arrangement with students at the University of California, Berkeley, broadcasting at night over the Berkeley FM station. The show was called Radio Free Alcatraz. He discussed the cause of the occupation and American Indian issues, and played traditional Native American music. He criticized how “the system today is only geared toward white needs.” He spoke for the many Indians who believed they did not fit in with the then majority European-American population of the nation. He became a spokesperson for the occupation specifically and for the Alcatraz-Red Power Movement generally, as the author Vine Deloria, Jr. named it. Trudell was the spokesman for the nearly two-year long occupation, until 1971.
After the failure of the federal government to meet demands of the protesters at Alcatraz, Trudell joined the American Indian Movement. It had been established in 1968 in Minneapolis among urban American Indians, first to deal with police harassment and injustice in the law enforcement system. Although never officially elected, Trudell acted as its national chairman from 1973 until 1979. He took the position after the first chairman, Carter Camp, was convicted for actions related to a protest and was sentenced to jail.
In 1975 Trudell was arrested on charges of assault, felonious assault and assault with a deadly weapon. He had gone to a reservation trading post to try to get better food for senior residents. He tried to pay using food stamps, but the trading post did not accept them. The police report said that he fired a shot inside the store.
On 12 February 1979, Trudell lost his wife, Tina Manning and their three children, and his mother-in-law Leah Hicks-Manning in a suspicious fire at the home of his parents-in-law on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Nevada. His father-in-law Arthur Manning survived. He was a member of the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe’s tribal council who was working for treaty rights. Opponents included the local tribal police chief and the BIA superintendent, John Artichoker. Leah coordinated social services at the reservation. Tina had been working for tribal water rights at the Wildhorse Reservoir. Opponents of her campaign included officials of the local BIA, Elko County and Nevada state officials, members of the water recreation industry, and local European-American ranchers. Other activists have also speculated whether there was government involvement behind the tragedy.
Trudell believed that the fire was arson, but the BIA police investigation claimed that it was accidental. It occurred soon after he had been leading a demonstration in Washington, DC. Trudell believed that the fire was meant to threaten and silence him and his activist wife. In numerous interviews, he has expressed distrust for the federal government and specifically the FBI.
In 1968, Trudell married his first wife, Fenicia “Lou” Ordonez.
In 1972 Trudell married Tina Manning, an activist of the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe. They had three children together: Ricarda Star (girl, age five), Sunshine Karma (girl, three), and Eli Changing Sun (one). In February 1979 Tina (who was pregnant), the children and her mother Leah Hicks-Manning were all killed in a fire at her parents’ house on the Duck Valley Reservation. Her father Arthur survived. Trudell was out of town.
In 1979, Trudell met Jackson Browne and became interested in the musical world. Trudell recorded an album, A.K.A Graffiti Man, with the Kiowa guitarist Jesse Ed Davis. It was first available only on cassette tape. In 1992 Trudell remade A.K.A Graffiti Man. In 1990, John Trudell took part in Tony Hymas Oyaté project.
His greatest success came with the 1994 album “Johnny Damas & Me” described as “a culmination of years of poetic work, and an example of a process of fusing traditional sounds, values, and sensibilities with thought-provoking lyrics, this time with urgent rock and roll.”
More recent releases include Blue Indians (1999), Descendant Now Ancestor (2001), Bone Days (2001), Madness and Moremes (2007) and CRAZIER THAN HELL (2010).
One critic said of Trudell’s live performances that: “This isn’t simply pop rock with Indian drums and chants added. It’s integrated rock and roll by an American Indian with a multicultural band directed to anyone who will listen.”
About six months after the deaths of his family, Trudell started writing. He describes his poetry as the following: “They’re called poems but in reality they’re lines given to me to hang on to.” He has written many poems, including “Baby Boom Che” and “Rant and Roll”. He sets his poetry as lyrics for recordings, and in 1982 started to set them to traditional American Indian music.
In late 1988, Midnight Oil took Trudell (as Graffiti Man) on tour with them for From Diesel and Dust to the Big Mountain. They billed themselves as a Native American activist performance act. They played traditional instruments, sang in native American languages, and accompanied the songs with heavy Hendrix-style guitar. This brought Trudell to a new and larger audience.
Trudell toured in 1993 with Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD tour. He was billed as John Trudell, performing his traditional songs and reading his poetry. In 2008, he published a book, Lines From a Mined Mind: The Words of John Trudell, a collection of 25 years of poetry, lyrics and essays.
Trudell created a career as an actor, performing in roles in Thunderheart (1992), On Deadly Ground (1995) and Smoke Signals (1998) (as the Radio speaker Randy Peone on K-REZ radio). He was an adviser to the production of Incident at Oglala, directed by Michael Apted and produced by Robert Redford. A kind of companion piece to the fictional Thunderheart, the 1992 documentary explores facts related to the 1975 shooting of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, for which Leonard Peltier was convicted in 1976.
The filmmaker Heather Rae spent more than a decade making a documentary about Trudell, which was released in 2005. Her intent in Trudell (2005) was to demonstrate how his political and cultural activities were tied to contemporary history and inspired people. The film premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. documentary competition. The movie has received a mixed response among film critics and viewers. Some claimed it to be thought-provoking and touching, while others suggested Rae made a one-dimensional biopic. The song used at the end of the film is “Johnny Lobo” by Kris Kristofferson, from his A Moment of Forever.
In 2004, Trudell testified in the federal trial of Arlo Looking Cloud, an Oglala Lakota AIM member charged in the kidnapping and murder of Anna Mae Aquash, the highest-ranking woman in AIM, in December 1975. Trudell testified that Looking Cloud had told him that John Graham, another low-level AIM member, was the gunman in the murder. Trudell identified Graham from photographs. Looking Cloud was convicted in 2004 and sentenced to life imprisonment.
His testimony was part of the evidence considered by the Canadian judge who ordered Graham’s extradition to the United States in February 2005. On 2 March 2005, the Native Youth Movement Vancouver announced a boycott of John Trudell’s music and poetry in retaliation for his testimony, and alleged that the FBI had killed Aquash. In early 2006, Michael Donnelly explored the issues related to the Aquash murder in the American political newsletter CounterPunch. He documented why Trudell’s testimony should be considered substantive and that activists were getting on the wrong side of the issue by attacking him. In 2010, Graham was convicted in a South Dakota state court of felony murder of Aquash and sentenced to life imprisonment.