by Anthony Castillo
Here at the Beachhead we celebrate poets, musicians, artists, visionary thinkers, progressive political activists and those in touch with our mother earth. On December 8th 2015 we lost a giant of a man that embodied all of those things and more. After a long bought with cancer, John Trudell, Native American (Santee Dakota) activist passed. He was all the aformentioned as well as an actor,and author. He was only 69 years old.
Trudell first came into the pubic eye during the Alcatraz Island Occupation which lasted from November 1969 to June of 1970, in which he became the occupation’s spokesperson through his Radio Free Alcatraz broadcasts. The occupation was based on the 1886 Treaty of Fort Lawrence which stated that any abandoned Federal property would revert back to the Indian Nations. The book “Alcatraz is Not an Island” details the occupation. The occupation, the manifesto “We Hold the Rock” issued by the group Indians of All Tribes as well as Trudell’s broadcasts from Alcatraz inspired the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the Native American rights movement throughout the Americas. Trudell 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. In 1973 Trudell became the spokesperson for AIM, a position he held until 1979.
In keeping with a long Native oral tradition, Trudell’s first book of poetry “Living In Reality: Songs Called Poems” was published in 1982. This was the start of a long, prolific, important body of work. While a great deal of Trudell’s work centered on social issues and the struggles of Native people, Trudell never called his words or music “political or protest.” “We are speaking our truth, bringing our energy. Music is its own energy, it’s good and positive in strengthening our communities” Trudell said.
The FBI agreed with Trudell’s statement. So much so that an early FBI memo states: “He is extremely eloquent, therefore extremely dangerous.” The FBI went on from there to amass a 17,000 page dossier on Trudell, one of the longest in the agency ’s history. Trudell said “All I did was talk, and they cracked down hard for that.” This was a reference to the February 1979 suspected FBI murders of Trudell’s wife, Tina, their four children (one yet unborn), and Tina’s mother in a suspicious fire in their parents’ home on the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada. Though arson was never proven, a private investigator hired by Trudell said the official account of the event was an impossibility.
This cataclysmic event made Trudell dive deeper into the arts, poetry and music. Art did indeed save John Trudell. His debut record “Tribal Voice” was released in 1983. In 1986 Trudell started his collaboration with brilliant Native American (Kiowa) guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, who told Trudell “I can turn your poems into songs.” Which he did on three records “AKA Graffiti Man, But This Isn’t El Salvador and Heart Jump Bouquet.” My personal favorite being the track “Bombs Over Baghdad.” Sadly, Davis passed in 1988 due to his heroin addiction. Though Davis’s passing was a huge loss for Trudell, he carried on thanks to the encouragement from the likes of Jackson Brown, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan and many others.
Trudell also got into acting. He can be scene in the 1992 film “Thunderheart” along side Val Kilmer, and the 1998 film “Smoke Signals” among others. The best film Trudell was the star of is the must see 2005 Heather Rea documentary “Trudell” about the man himself and his life up to that point. I saw a screening when it was first released where Trudell spoke and did a Q and A afterwards. It was a very special night.
If you want to know more of John Trudell you can listen to his many recordings and read his many books. Two of the best being “Stickman: Poems, Lyrics, Talks, a Conversation” and the 2008 twenty five year collection of Trudell’s poetry “Lines From a Mined Mind: The Words of John Trudell.”
Some called John Trudell a prophet, or the American Bob Marley. Through his words Trudell was attempting to rally the power in all of us, the human being power. To his own admission Trudell said he was just a happy soldier in Elvis Presley’s Army. He may have been, but he was so much more to those who heard his powerful words. May his inspiration ring on for generations.