Remembering John Trudell

On Dec. 8, family members announced that legendary Native American activist, poet, musician and actor John Trudell had passed away from cancer at age 69. Trudell leaves behind an incredible legacy, says Mike Mease, director of the Buffalo Field Campaign.

"It's a sad day," Mease says. "The world's lost a visionary who had a plan for all of us, where we're all equal and we all count together. That's the kind of leadership we need. But the beautiful thing is he left us all his gifts and wisdom."

Trudell was born in Nebraska to a Mexican Indian mother and a Santee Sioux father. He first came to the national spotlight when he joined an occupation of Alcatraz in 1969. He served as the spokesman for the group, Indians of All Tribes, which demanded to use the island as a cultural and education center. At a news conference in April 1970, Trudell announced, "We will no longer be museum pieces, tourist attractions and politicians' playthings."

Trudell continued to campaign for Native American rights, and in 1979, he burned the U.S. flag on the steps of the FBI building in Washington, D.C. The next day, a suspicious house fire in Nevada killed his pregnant wife, three children and mother-in-law.

After the tragedy, Trudell's focus shifted, and he began performing music. He also acted in a few films in the 1990s, including Incident at Oglala and Smoke Signals.

Mease met Trudell sometime around 2001 when the activist reached out to the Buffalo Field Campaign asking how he could help the nonprofit's cause of freeing the Yellowstone Park bison herd.

  • photo courtesy of Madonna Dunbar

"We do an annual West Coast roadshow with some phenomenal Native musicians and he wanted to be part of it," Mease says. Throughout the years, Trudell also donated his poetry and music to the BFC for promotional videos.

Mease recalls that Trudell's manner in person was much the same as when he was onstage.

"He's quiet, but when he talks he has something you want to hear," Mease says. "We didn't talk about movies or television, which is the redundant conversation with all too many Americans nowadays, but we talked about change and how we could get there together."

Many people who never even met Trudell still looked to him as an inspiring figure. Kate Shanley, an Assiniboine from Fort Peck, teaches Native American studies at the University of Montana. She remembers sitting up and taking note of Trudell's work back in 1970.

"I was a young, poor, working person at that time," Shanley says, "and when the occupation of Alcatraz happened, I was like Indian people all over the country, like, wow."

Shanley praises how Trudell responded to tragedy with gentleness.

"He was real," she says. "And that's part of his legacy, is people saw him as peaceful and real."

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