John Trudell


Photo by Matika Wilbur | Project562

[John Trudell, American Indian poet, actor, spoken word artist and political activist passed away on December 8, 2015, at his home, surrounded by his family and friends.

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. 
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 theTreaty 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 documentaryTrudell). His marriage would end during this period as he become 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.


AP Images | Richard Drew

In remembering John Trudell, it is worth paying a note of respect to all the people involved in all the activities that helped define an era and led to many changes we enjoy today. Such as: Richard Oakes (my cousin), Adam Fortunate Eagle, LaNada Means, and Alcatraz veterans Richard McKenzie, Mark Martinez, Garfield Spotted Elk, Virgil Standing-Elk, Walter Means, Allen Cottier, Joe Bill, David Leach, John Whitefox, Ross Harden, Jim Vaughn, Linda Arayando, Bernell Blindman, Kay Many Horse, John Virgil, John Martell, Fred Shelton, Rick Evening, Jerry Hatch, Al Miller, Joe Morris, Stella Leach, Cleo Waterman, Al Rickard, Dean Chavers.

Then there was Fred Downey—Coyote 1, Peter Blue Cloud—Coyote 2, and the actor Peter Coyote, Benjamin Bratt, Jack Forbes, Grace Thorpe, Wilma Mankiller, and so many more who turned out to support in the early 70s like Buffy Ste. Marie, Marlon Brando, Richie Havens, Taj Mahal, Dick Gregory, Muhammed Ali, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Anthony Quinn, Jane Fonda, Jonathan Winters, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael.

A home movie by Bureau of Indian Affairs employee Doris Purdy was made at Alcatraz and captures a snippet of this time, as does the famous LIFE Magazine photo-spread that has Oakes, Trudell and the entire Alcatraz contingent featured. In 1972, the movement was propelled by members of AIM, the National Indian Brotherhood, the Native American Rights Fund, the National Indian Youth Council, the National American Indian Council, the National Council on Indian Work, National Indian Leadership Training, and the American Indian Committee on Alcohol and Drug Abuse who organized the Trail of Broken Treaties, Mel Thom, Clyde Warrior, Gerald Wilkerson, Vine Deloria Jr., Hank Adams, Carter Camp, Shirley Hill Witt, LaDonna Harris, Suzan Harjo, and Louis Bruce.

The 1973 AIM Liberation/Occupation of Wounded Knee included Russell Means, Dennis Banks, Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt, Ellen Moves Camp, Gladys Bissonette, Lenny Foster, Edgar Bear Runner, Stan Holder, Pedro Bissonette, Leonard Peltier, Bob Robideau, Dino Butler, Nilak Butler, Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, Mary Crow Dog, Kamook Banks, Lori Pourier, Winona LaDuke, Phillip Deer, Lee Brightman, Sid Mills, Bill Wahpepah, Ingrid Washinwatok, Billy War Soldier, Floyd Westerman, Joy Harjo. These are the names of just some of the people associated with that time, who knew or worked or debated with John Trudell.

We should also not neglect the memory of Frank Clearwater, Buddy LaMont, Joe Stuntz and the over 200 missing and murdered Natives from either side in the FBI/DOJ/BIA repression after Wounded Knee and the Jumping Bull Ranch/FBI shoot-out.] (from Indian Country Today)


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