Indian activist warrior and pop poet John Trudell is dead


John Trudell, Munich, 1987, image copyright Claus Biegert

John Trudell, Munich, 1987 image © Claus Biegert

Indian activist John Trudell began his career as a poet and pop star in 1979, the year he burned the US flag in Washington. Ten years before he had been the spokesperson of "Indians of All Tribes," the activist group that occupied the former prison island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay for the purposes of setting up an Indian university and cultural center. John was the moving spirit behind "Radio Free Alcatraz," which broadcast from the island until, after nineteen months, Federal Marshals landed and forcibly ended the occupation. Afterwards, Trudell joined the American Indian Movement (AIM), a pan-Indian resistance movement that described itself as a non-organization. Across North America, AIM united the scattered tribes, gaining national attention by staging a series of spectacular militant actions.

Born in 1946 in Omaha, Nebraska, John Trudell was the son of a Dakota Indian father and a mother of Mexican heritage. Upon his return from fighting in Vietnam, John radically switched gears and began demonstrating for indigenous human rights and the end of industrial environmental terrorism.

Trudell was the national chairman of AIM from 1973 to 1979. During those years Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota was immersed in civil war. The traditional Lakota refused to recognize the authority of the tribal government, which was run by the so-called progressives, or »good Indians«, in league with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in Washington. The FBI provided the progressives with ammunition and liquor, and used the hostile Pine Ridge atmosphere as cause to bring in and train 2000 special agents. The era came to a tragic head on June 26, 1975, when two FBI agents and a young AIM activist were killed in an exchange of gunfire. Based on trumped-up FBI evidence and fraud court testimony, the deaths of the two agents were pinned on Leonard Peltier: the innocent man was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive terms of life. Leonard has been behind bars since 1976; Amnesty International regards him as a political prisoner and has continually lobbied for his release.

John Trudell burned the Stars and Stripes on the steps of the FBI headquarters to protest Peltier's false conviction. Not twenty-four hours later, the home of his parents-in-law went up in flames at the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada, killing John's wife Tina, his three children, and his mother-in-law. BIA investigators said the blaze was accidental; John was certain the fire was an act of FBI retribution.

The devastating personal tragedy pushed Trudell very close to losing all grip on life. To keep himself together, the Indian warrior activist turned to paper and pencil and poetry. He wrote and wrote, producing work he called "lines," sometimes believing Tina was dictating the words. His original chapbooks of poetry, Living in Reality, and Stick Man, have acquired cult status. In his 17,000 page FBI file, John is called, "Extremely eloquent ... therefore extremely dangerous."

At the beginning of the eighties, following a reading given by John in Los Angeles, a man emerged from the audience and told him that he had just the right music to accompany his lines. The man was the singer and guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, a Kiowa widely known for playing on George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh. The duo soon produced their first tape, Graffiti Man – the warrior poet reciting his powerful words over the texture of sounds laid down by the rock musician.

It was all happening. A friend of John's at a party slipped the tape into the pocket of Bob Dylan's jacket, and not long afterwards Dylan was letting people know that there weren't many masters of Talking Rock – only a few as talented as Lou Reed and John Trudell. Dylan often played Trudell's tape during his concert intermissions. Jesse Ed Davis had some good contacts in the music business, and the duo's first appearances were booked. Then things came to an abrupt end: Jesse was found dead in a laundromat – he had overdosed.

Again, Trudell wrote and wrote, and with Jackson Browne's help, he put together a new group of musicians that included Quilt Man, a traditional Indian singer. The group produced album after album, fourteen in all, and won three Native American Music Awards. Over the years John's work become sharper, more precise, without ever losing the defining values that mattered to him most: love and responsibility.

During the nineties John also began appearing regularly in films. In 2005, an award-winning documentary was made about his life: Trudell. During the last few years, John had worked closely with country singer Willie Nelson to create greater awareness about the benefits of employing industrial hemp as a building and clothing material. The organization Trudell and Nelson co-founded is called, "Hempstead Project Heart."

Following a battle with cancer, John Trudell died on December 8, 2015, at his home in Santa Clara County in Northern California. He was 69.

English translation: Craig Eldon Reishus