Published on January 24, 2011 by Amy
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John Trudell (born February 15, 1946) is a Native American author, poet, musician, and former political activist. He was the chairman of the American Indian Movement for most of the 1970s and the spokesperson for the takeover of Alcatraz. He is an author, poet and actor.
Trudell was born in Omaha, Nebraska on February 14, 1946. Son of a Santee Sioux father and a Mexican mother, he grew up around the Santee Sioux Reservation located in northern Nebraska near the corner of South Dakota. In 1963 when he was only 17 years old he dropped out of high school and left the Midwest by joining the US Navy, and served in the early years of the Vietnam War. He served in the navy until 1967. He attended college at San Bernardino, studying radio and broadcasting. After six years of college, he was unable to find employment. Disillusioned, he sought a better life through political activism.
After getting out of the military, Trudell became involved in Indian activism and became the spokesperson for the Indians of All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969. Only a week after the occupation of the island started, Trudell was there. Trudell used his background in broadcasting, running a radio station at night over the Berkley FM dial. The show was calledRadio Free Alcatraz. On it he talked about the cause, Native American issues and played typical Native American music.3 He spoke on how “the system today is only geared toward white needs.”5 He spoke for the many Indians who believed they did not fit in with the rest of the nation. He respected the occupation so much that he dropped everything to join it, living on the island while providing it with an eloquent voice. He became a spokesperson for the occupation in specific and the red power movement in general. He was the spokesman until 1971.6 His involvement in the takeover is where he first attracted attention, both from the government and the public. He joined the American Indian Movement after the failure of the Alcatraz takeover. Although not officially elected, he acted as its national chairman from 1972 until 1979. He took the position after the original chairman, Carter Camp, went to jail. In 1975 Trudell was arrested on charges of assault, felonious assault, and assault with a deadly weapon. He had gone to a trading post to try to get better nutrition for senior residents. He tried to give their food stamps, but he reservation trading post did not accept food stamps. Reports say he fired a shot inside the store.10 In 1979, his mother-in-law, pregnant wife (Tina Manning), and three children were killed in a fire at their home on the Shoshone/Paiute reservation in Nevada. Trudell, as well as many other activists in the movement, still believe that the fire was not accidental. It occurred within 12 hours of his burning a flag on the steps of the FBI building in Washington DC.9 He viewed it as an act of war meant to silence him and his outspoken wife. In numerous interviews he has expressed his distrust for the FBI and the federal government. In 1979, Trudell met Jackson Browne and became interested in the musical world. Trudell recorded an album, A.K.A Graffiti Man, with Kiowa guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, originally available only on cassette tape. In 1992 he remade A.K.A Graffiti Man. More recent endeavors include Blue Indians (1999) and Bone Days.
After the tragic death of both his wife and children, Trudell lets his voice speak through the written word.4 He is the author of many poems, including “Baby Boom Che” and “Rant and Roll”. His music is poetry as well, in 1982 he began recording it to traditional Indian music6.. He also wrote a book, “Lines From a Mined Mind.” He uses poetry and writing to, in his own words, “stay connected to reality” after the unexplained death of his family.
Trudell created a second career as an actor, with roles in Thunderheart (1992), On Deadly Ground (1995) and Smoke Signals (1998). He was an adviser to the production of Incident at Oglala, directed by Michael Apted and produced by Robert Redford. A companion piece to Thunderheart, the 1992 documentary reveals the events through an exploration of facts related to the shootout on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Trudell played a key role in keeping the movie true to events of the times.
Filmmaker Heather Rae spent more than a decade making a documentary about Trudell, released in (2005). Her intent in Trudell was to demonstrate how the man’s political and cultural activities reflected contemporary history and inspired people. The film premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. documentary competition.
The movie received mixed response among film critics and ordinary viewers. Some claimed it to be thought-provoking and touching while others suggested Rae made a one-dimensionalbiopic. The song used at the end of the film is “Johnny Lobo” by Kris Kristofferson, from his A Moment of Forever.
John Trudell has appeared on the following albums:
His music draws from a unique variation of sounds, including rock, blues and native beats, pop and political protest songs. He also draws from his own poetry. His music can be both insightful and funny.