On Tuesday, December 8, John Trudell died of cancer at his home in Santa Clara, CA. He was 69. Trudell was a leading voice in the battle for Native American rights, as well as a talented spoken word artist and actor, who appeared in the films Thunderheart and Smoke Signals.
Trudell, who was a Santee Dakota and Mexican-Indian, born in Omaha, NE and was raised, in part, on the Santee reservation in northern Nebraska. With the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM), he became one of the movement’s most effective spokespeople and was instrumental in generating attention on Native American issues. He helped orchestrate the takeover of the abandoned federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, which lasted from 1969 to 1971. He also participated in the 1972 occupation the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, demanding the enforcement of historical treaties that granted Native Americans sovereignty over their land. Trudell served as AIM’s national chairman throughout much of the 1970s.
AIM leaders suffered vicious harassment at the hands of the federal government. Following a 1971 flag-burning at the FBI building in Washington D.C., his home was burned to the ground the following a day. His wife and three children were killed in the fire. The incident that was never fully investigated and remains under suspicion.
As an artist, Trudell released several spoken-word albums and books of poetry. As a vocal support of cannabis legalization and an advocate for hemp agriculture, Trudell appeared at two High Times Cannabis Cups and performed, in 1996 and 2005. He was inducted into the High Times Counterculture Hall of Fame.
He was a great believer in our ability to use our intelligence, what he called “our defense mechanism as human beings,” to improve the human condition. In a January 2003, High Times interview, he said: “However one perceives our Creator, we were given intelligence – what we were given to be able to maintain a balance in the evolutionary reality. If human beings can use it clearly and coherently, they can maintain their participation in the evolutionary reality. If they don’t, they can evolve themselves out of it. Our ancestors had the understanding of that. They understood that we lived in a spiritual reality and to be free, one must be responsible. So life is not about spirituality, life is about responsibility.”