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John Trudell

John Trudell
John Trudell at a conference in 2009
Born (1946-02-15) February 15, 1946
Omaha, Nebraska, U.S.
Nationality Santee Dakota-American
Occupation Indigenous rights activist, poet, musician, actor
Organization American Indian Movement
Partner(s) Marcheline Bertrand (unknown–2007)

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.

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.


  • Early life and education 1
  • Military service 2
  • Political activism 3
  • Personal life 4
  • Musical career 5
  • Writing career 6
  • Film career 7
  • Discography 8
  • Bibliography 9
  • Political controversy 10
  • References 11
  • Further reading 12
  • External links 13

Early life and education

Trudell was born in Omaha, Nebraska on February 15, 1946, as the son of a Santee Dakota 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 Dakota culture.

Military service

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.

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. Trudell acted as its national chairman from 1973 until 1979.[1][2] He took the position after the first chairman, Carter Camp, was convicted for actions related to a protest and was sentenced to jail.[3]

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.[4] Other activists have also speculated whether there was government involvement behind the tragedy.[5]

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.[6] Trudell believed that the fire was meant to threaten and silence him and his activist wife.[4] In numerous interviews, he has expressed distrust for the federal government and specifically the FBI.[7] The FBI has been implicated in wrongdoing in Pine Ridge and other reservations during this period, which included offering monetary support to the Dickie Wilson's Guardians of the Ogallala Nation (GOONS). Essentially the GOONS, paid by Dickie Wilson (who in turn was paid by the FBI) the then Band Council Chief (elected in what many believe was a rigged election) terrorized and murdered traditional Sioux people who spoke out against federal government treatment of American Indian people. The house fire that killed Trudell's family happened within 24 hours of him burning a US flag on the steps of the FBI building in Washington D.C. in protest of the government's treatment of Native Americans and the Sioux Nation.

John Trudell is the co-founder of Hempstead Project Heart with Willie Nelson, which became a project of Earth Island Institute in 2012. Hempstead Project Heart is dedicated to raising awareness about the environmental, social, and economic benefits of legalizing industrial hemp in America.

Personal life

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, Sunshine Karma, and Eli Changing Sun. 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.[4]

Trudell was in a relationship with Marcheline Bertrand, the mother of actress Angelina Jolie, at the time of her death from cancer in 2007.[8][9]

Musical career

In 1979, John Trudell met musical artist and activist Jackson Browne and became more interested in the musical world (and recording albums and performing his own compositions in live venues).

Trudell recorded an album A.K.A Grafitti Man (for some reason, "graffiti" was misspelled in the title) with Kiowa guitarist Jesse Ed Davis (well known for recording with Bob Dylan, John Lennon et al.) that was originally available on cassette tape format only. This comports with the practice common to American indigenous and other so-called minorities of distributing music mixtapes captured live at group events and copied and distributed through non-commercial channels, like those of the San Francisco-based rock group Grateful Dead, Native American powwow music performances in general, and African American gatherings whence came the expression Each One Teach One, common also to an emerging grassroots movement that was arguably itself a response to the reactionary madness of slavery and/or military-industrial/imperialist hegemony flourishing in the 1980s.

In 1990 John Trudell took part in Tony Hymas's Oyaté project.

In 1992 Trudell remade and re-released A.K.A Grafitti Man as an audio CD to substantial critical and popular acclaim.

Arguably his greatest musical success came with the 1994 album "Johnny Damas & Me" that was 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."[10]

More recent musical releases with his band Bad Dog include Blue Indians (1999), Descendant Now Ancestor (2001), Bone Days (2001), Madness and Moremes (2007) and Crazier Than Hell (2010).

Trudell's music catalog and contact info. for licensing his sound recordings are available on his web site

Popular Music critic Neal Ullestad said of Trudell's live performances, "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."[10]

The closing sequence of Alanis Obomsawin's 2014 documentary film Trick or Treaty? is set to Trudell’s song "Crazy Horse."[11]

Writing career

About six months after the deaths of his family, John Trudell started writing poetry. He describes his work, “They’re called poems, but in reality they’re lines given to me to hang on to.”[12] He has written many poems, including "Baby Boom Che" and "Rant and Roll," and hundreds of others.

In recent years (2010s) he often shares recent poetic musings and written works in progress via social media (e.g. his Facebook page) to tremendous popular acclaim, and a growing movement of worldwide fans and supporters via the WWW and the Internet.

Various impromptu videos of Trudell in live concert appearances or addressing political, social, indigenous rights and educational groups are posted on Google's, and although he is sought after by various print and broadcast media outlets for "sound byte commentary," Trudell prefers to speak in less frenetic style directly to gatherings assembled for specific causes that he supports (e.g., advocating on behalf of re-legalizing hemp cultivation for its many beneficial uses, including sustainable paper pulp).

Trudell often uses his poetry as lyrics for recordings, and began in 1982 to set them to traditional American Indian music, which also in the 1980s eventually led to the recording of A.K.A Graffiti Man, as he struggled to make sense of bewildering situations that confronted him, including the loss of so many loved ones, much as indigenous peoples have faced worldwide in the tragic annals of tribal and colonial conquests.

In late 1988, popular Australian rock band Midnight Oil invited Trudell (as Graffiti Man) to tour with them during their From Diesel and Dust to the Big Mountain world tour. They billed Trudell's part of the show as "Native American activist performance." Members of Midnight Oil played traditional instruments, sang in native American languages, and accompanied songs with heavy psychedelic Hendrix-style guitar, accompanying Trudell to raving fans. This exposure brought Trudell new and larger audiences.

Trudell also toured in 1993 with Peter Gabriel's global WOMAD (World Music and Dance) production. He was billed as John Trudell, performing his traditional songs and reading his poetry.

In 2008 Trudell published a book, Lines From a Mined Mind: The Words of John Trudell, a collection of 25 years of poetry, lyrics and essays.

Film career

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[13]). 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 1977. In Thunderheart, Trudell played a character who resembles Peltier.

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" about Trudell by Kris Kristofferson, from his A Moment of Forever.[14][15]


John Trudell has appeared on the following albums:[16]

  • 1983 Tribal Voice
  • 1986 Original A.K.A. Graffiti Man
  • 1987 ...But This Isn't El Salvador
  • 1987 Heart Jump Bouquet
  • 1991 Fables and Other Realities
  • 1992 Child's Voice: Children of the Earth
  • 1992 A.K.A. Graffiti Man
  • 1994 Johnny Damas & Me
  • 1999 Blue Indians
  • 2001 Descendant Now Ancestor
  • 2001 Bone Days (produced by the actress Angelina Jolie)
  • 2005 Live à Fip
  • 2007 Madness & The Moremes (double album)
  • 2010 Crazier Than Hell
  • 2014 Through The Dust (feat. Kwest)

His music draws from a blend of styles, 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.


  • Trudell, John. Stickman: Poems, Lyrics, Talks, edited by Paola Igliori. New York, New York: Inanout Press, 1999, 168 pages, ISBN 978-0-9625119-8-1

Political controversy

In 2004, Trudell testified in the federal trial of Arlo Looking Cloud, an Oglala Lakota American Indian Movement (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.[17] 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.[18] In 2010, Graham was convicted in a South Dakota state court of felony murder of Aquash and sentenced to life imprisonment.


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Lawrence Journal-World, June 7, 1975
  4. ^ a b c "Concerning John Trudell...", Dick Shovel Website, n.d., accessed 18 July 2011
  5. ^ Churchill, Ward. 1992. Death Squads in the United States: Confessions of a Government Terrorist;3 Yale J.L. & Lib. 83
  6. ^ Messerschmidt, James W., The Trial of Leonard Peltier, p. 27.
  7. ^ Portland Oregon Public Access interview, September 11, 2009
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ a b Neal Ullestad. 2008. American Indian rap and reggae: Dancing “to the beat of a different Drummer.” Popular Music and Society Vol. 23, Iss. 2, 2008
  11. ^ Mintzer, Jordan (4 September 2014). "‘Trick or Treaty?’: Toronto Review". Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  12. ^ (2005)Trudell, Independent Lens, PBS, 2011, accessed 18 July 2011
  13. ^ Joanna Hearne. 2005. John Wayne's Teeth: Speech, Sound and Representation in "Smoke Signals" and "Imagining Indians" . Western Folklore , Vol. 64, No. 3/4, Film and Folklore, pp. 189-208
  14. ^ Mitchell, Larry (June 13, 2006). "'"About the Film 'Trudell-The Movie. The Native Blog. Retrieved 8 September 2014. 
  15. ^ "Johnny Lobo. A tribute to John Trudell By Kris Kristofferson & The Highway Men (video)". Axis of Logic. April 21, 2012. Retrieved 8 September 2014. 
  16. ^ Rolling Stone Discography: John Trudell
  17. ^ "NYM Vancouver announces boycott of John Trudell", Our Freedom Blog, 7 June 2007
  18. ^ MICHAEL DONNELLY, "Getting Away with Murder: Killing Anna Mae Aquash, Smearing John Trudell", Counterpunch, 12 January 2006, accessed 18 July 2011

Further reading

  • Lee Kimberly, "Heartspeak from the Spirit Songs of John Trudell, Keith Secola, and Robbie Robertson", Studies in American Indian Literature, JSTOR, Access provided by University of Illinois @ Urbana-Champaign
  • Richard Burke, "What Tribe? Whose Island?", The North American Review, Vol. 255, No. 1 (Spring, 1970), pp. 51–56, JSTOR provided by University of Illinois
  • Liz Cook, "Some Thoughts About Biography", pp. 73–74, Wicazo Sa Review, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring, 1994), JSTOR
  • Louis Heath, "No Rock Is an Island No Rock Is an Island", The Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 52, No. 7 (Mar., 1971), pp. 397–399, JSTOR
  • King, Frank J., III. "A Native Voice: Visit Activist/Actor/Artist John Trudell", University of Michigan, ProQuest subscriber only
  • Akwesasne Notes (1975–1989). Rooseveltown: Aug 31, 1975. Vol. 7, Iss. 3; p. 14
  • Segel, Joel. "Interview with John Trudell." Cultural Democracy Spring 1996: 4-6.

External links

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