The Life, Legacy, and Importance of Activist Icon, John Trudell

Image 1. John Trudell discussing the Occupation of Alcatraz at a press conference in San Francisco (Ilka Hartman/National Parks Service, created Jun. 11, 1971) []

Written By : Eden Shupe

Many don’t know of the American Indian Movement, but even fewer people remember or know about individual members of the movement, such John Trudell. People do remember events though, such as the Occupation of the Alcatraz 1969 or Wounded Knee in 1973. I’ve been studying the topic of AIM and its memory, but I’ve also taken quite a few courses on Native American History, Native American Literature, and others, so I’m rather interested in the topic and learning what I can about it. I’m also about ¼ Native American, so it’s important to me in that way also. The way that the American Indian Movement tried to change the lives of Native Americans is interesting, but also still relevant today, because these problems are still around and the fight is still ongoing, but the memory of individuals is no less relevant or interesting.

While The American Indian Movement is partially remembered, there are individual members of AIM that are neglected. Unlike other Movements that have one easily recognized figurehead, like Martin Luther King Jr, AIM had many founders and leaders, though none as revered by a mainstream audience like King. John Trudell is a very fascinating person who doesn’t get the widespread recognition he deserves for being a member of AIM, and more broadly, as a significant and influential Native American and activist

It’s through his work as an activist, poet, actor, and musician that Trudell’s legacy remains, as well his influence on the Native Civil Rights Movement. Though he’s recently passed on, there have been events to remember Trudell. He’s also become a pop culture icon with shirts, memorials, art, photo collages, and movies done in his memory. He spoke throughout the 60s and 70s and later put much of his spoken word and poems to music alongside the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Jackson Browne, and Jessie Ed Davis, which still influences activists today. One example of this is the album Bone Days. He even had musician fans like Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt. This enabled his message and influence to reach a greater audience. He also appeared in movies , like Thunderheart and Smoke Signals,  and a documentary based on his life. Though not widely remembered, the existing view of John Trudell, is as an influential, important figure in Native American Civil Rights history and counterculture icon.

John Trudell was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1946 on the Santee Sioux Reservation. His mother died when he was 6 and his family struggled to get on, which “left Trudell with a deep contempt with the American “work ethic”, compounded by the endemic racial and economic injustice which surrounded him.” These factors would push him into the fight for Native American Civil Rights.

Before joining AIM, Trudell served in Vietnam, which made him more discontent with the racism he saw around him. After getting home, he joined the Indians of All Tribes, whose first action was to take over Alcatraz Island, which was Indian land according to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. He became their spokesperson and broadcasted on the radio which brought attention to the struggle of Native Americans. After Alcatraz, the Indians of All Tribes were overshadowed by The American Indian Movement, which worked toward greater change for Native Americans.

Image 2. A Remember Wounded Knee pin or sign []

Most people will have heard of the Wounded Knee Occupation of 1973 . During this time Trudell became the national chairman of the movement from 1973 until 1979. As chairman, he saw public opinion about AIM change. Some support remained, but after Wounded Knee and the Occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs , many saw AIM as radical. The government even declared many members, including Trudell, Leonard Peltier, Russell Means and Darelle “Dino” Butler, as enemies of the state. Trudell said,

  “They waged war against us. They hunted us down. They killed, jailed, destroyed, by any means necessary. They saw that magical thing that happened with Alcatraz…all of a sudden all this spirit is popping up and gaining momentum through A.I.M., and this is why the spirit-hunters, those who hunt free thought, came after us.”

Trudell was included in this list of because he was such a charismatic speaker and that made him dangerous to the “spirit-hunters,” or the government.

Image 3 Documents in John Trudell’s FBI files [] []

It was around this time that Trudell would face great tragedy. His family including his pregnant wife, Tina, and their children burned to death in their home on the Shoshone – Paiute reservation in Nevada. Some thought it an accident, but there is a theory the government had a hand in it due to the family’s involvement with AIM and Trudell’s flag burning. Two investigations were done and the first supported the accident idea. The second, done by a private investigator, found the fire could not have been accidental. No one knows what actually happened, but some, including Trudell himself, considered the incident murder. This event caused Trudell to become even more weary of the government and society. It also pushed him into further speaking out. He took his remaining family to Canada, but later returned to the U.S. , passing away in California of cancer at age 69.

Image 4. The Trudell Family including Tina Manning-Trudell, John Trudell, and their children []

While some people at the time supported The American Indian Movement, many, including the government, saw them as radical and many are still of that opinion. However, with time and more education, AIM is starting to be viewed in a more positive light, much like how other Civil Rights Movements are seen. This will improve and affect the memory of AIM as a whole, but yet still neglect the memory and history of individual members like Trudell. This could be changed by educating people about the members of AIM, just as people like MLK are represented. Trudell as a person, as well as his influence and the impact he made, both on Native Americans and on American history, should not be forgotten, but rather should be remembered and recognized as befits an icon and influencer of change.

Image 5 The flag of The American Indian Movement

References With Links

Admin, “The Tragic Life of John Trudell,” Powwow Times, May 23, 2020, accessed Mar.22,2022.

Emily Chertoff, “Occupy Wounded Knee: A 71- Day Siege and a Forgotten Civil Rights Movement,” Oct. 23, 2012, accessed Mar. 30,2022.

Rebekah Edgbert,” John Trudell-Leadership Qualities,” Mar. 3,2020, accessed Mar. 22,2022.

Jill Leovy and Robert Jablon,” Notable Deaths: John Trudell, poet, activist for American Indian Rights, dies at age 69,” Dec 9, 2015, accessed Mar. 22,2022.

David Kupfer, “Remembering John Trudell, Voice of the American Indian Movement,” Dec. 11, 2015, accessed Mar. 30,2022.

Michel Martin, “Remembering A Native American Actor, Activist, Musician and Poet,” Dec. 13,2015, accessed Mar. 30,2022.

N.A., “The Trail of Broken Treaties: A March on Washington, DC 1972,” N.D, accessed Mar. 30,2022.

N.A., “ History is a Weapon: Alcatraz Proclamation Letter 1969,” N.D., accessed Mar.30,2022.

Curtis Waltman,” The FBI Considered Charging the American Indian Movement’s John Trudell With “Insurrection”: File Shows the Bureau Unwilling to Investigate Arson Case That Claimed Activist’s Family. 13, 2017, accessed Mar. 22,2022.

            Trudell Documentary (2005)-

            Bone Days Album-

            Thunderheart Trailer-

Smoke SIgnals Trailer-

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