Extremely Eloquent, Therefore Extremely Dangerous: Native Poet Activist John Trudell Walks On

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Trudell in 1971 during the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island. AP Images/Richard Drew

After decades of "speaking our truth" - from the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz that helped fuel the the American Indian Movement to many powerful spoken word performances - Santee Sioux poet, artist and indigenous rights activist John Trudell has died of cancer at 69. Trudell long argued that "the genocide of civilization" called for him and others to "reclaim our memory (as) human beings" - thus prompting the FBI to compile a 17,000-page dossier on him. Trudell wasn't deterred. Continuing his activism on a range of human rights and environmental issues, he was viewed by many as one of the key "warriors of our time." 

Biographical accounts of Trudell note that he "entered this dimensional reality on February 15, 1946." His life changed dramatically in 1969 when he and other Native American students and organizers occupied Alcatraz Island for over a year and a half, arguing that the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie required that it and any other abandoned federal property revert to the Indian Nations - a legal and moral argument that sparked many similar actions across the country. The occupation inspired the manifesto We Hold the Rock, and eventually the book Alcatraz is Not an Island. It also led to the FBI amassing a 17,000-page dossier, one of the longest in its history, on Trudell; the 2005 documentary Trudell by Heather Rae quotes an early FBI memo: He is extremely eloquent, therefore extremely dangerous.”

Trudell's life veered again after a suspicious 1979 house fire at Nevada's Duck Valley Reservation that killed his pregnant wife Tina, their three children, and Tina's mother. While Trudell and many supporters suspected arson by his enemies in law enforcement, it was never proved. The day after the fire, Trudell burned an American flag in protest at the FBI building in D.C. Distraught after the tragedy, he turned to poetry. “I didn’t even know what reality was," he said years later. "I started to write my lines... (They were) lines for me to hold onto, my hanging-on lines....It was a parting gift from Tina (to) find some kind of center." He published several books of poems and essays, and eventually began setting his poems to traditional Native music, thus nourishing a long Native oral history tradition. Fans of his ultimately extensive music catalog ranged from indigenous activists to Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan.

Trudell maintained his activism on a host of issues, from global warming and indigenous land rights to fighting drug and alcohol abuse and advocating the use of hemp. He continued to argue that Native groups, and especially young people, need to "remember we're human beings." Near the end, he urged supporters to celebrate love and life. "I appreciate all of your expressions of concern and I appreciate all of your expressions of love. It has been like a fire to my heart."

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