John Trudell

Born: 1946

Famed American Indian activist and poet John Trudell was born on February 15, 1946 in Omaha, Nebraska, and grew up splitting his time between the Santee Sioux reservation with his grandparents and his parents’ home in the Omaha suburbs. At the age of six, Trudell’s mother died and his family fell into deep economic hardship. During this time, Trudell discovered a love of rock and roll music that would come to influence his later spoken word poetry, which he produced as albums with musical tracks behind the words. Trudell did not spend his youth enjoying literature, even dropping out of high school to join the Navy during the Vietnam War, where he saw active duty doing search-and-rescue missions for downed pilots. After four years, Trudell moved to Southern California to attend community college for radio communications before finding himself involved in the event that he is most known for: the occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969 to 1971 by the Indians of All Tribes group. Acting as the national spokesman for the group, Trudell discovered a natural talent for activism and public speaking that led him to become the National Chairman of the American Indian Movement from 1973 until 1979. In 1979, Trudell and a group of activists burned an American flag in front of the FBI Headquarters in protest of the way the United States government treated minorities. Twelve hours later, a fire “of suspicious origin” burned down his home, killing his pregnant wife Tina, their three children, and Tina’s mother. Deep in grief, Trudell retreated from his activism and discovered poetry as a means to connect to his late wife and process the trauma he had been through. After becoming friends with musical artists Jackson Browne and Jesse Ed Davis, Trudell began to record his work as spoken word poems with musical backing. AKA GRAFITTI MAN, his first album, was Bob Dylan’s pick for “the best album of 1986” and was followed by other albums that backed his poetry with traditional Native American music as well as contemporary pop. Trudell has been featured in several movies and documentaries, including the acclaimed 2005 documentary film “Trudell” by Heather Rae about his life, as well as feature films Thunderheart and Smoke Signals. After a lengthy fight with cancer, Trudell died at his home in Santa Clara County, California at the age of 69.