Notable Deaths: John Trudell, poet, activist for American Indian rights, dies at age 69
John Trudell, a Native American activist who became a spokesman for American Indian protesters during their 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island — and whose personal grief-inspired poetry was celebrated by famous fans such as Bob Dylan — died Tuesday. He was 69.
Trudell, who ran a radio broadcast from the island called Radio Free Alcatraz, died of cancer at his home in Santa Clara County in Northern California, according to a trustee for his estate.
He was born Feb. 15, 1946, in Omaha. His father was a Santee Sioux. Trudell grew up near the Santee Sioux reservation and served in the Navy on a destroyer off Vietnam.
In 1969, Trudell, who had studied radio and broadcasting at a college in San Bernardino, joined American Indians occupying the former federal prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.
The activists, equipped with bedrolls and potato salad, had hitched boat rides to the bleak, chilly outcropping in the middle of the night.
They claimed the prison as a Native American cultural center, citing 19th century treaty rights. They wrote “INDIANS WELCOME” on the old walls and offered to buy the island with glass beads and red cloth.
They set up a school, clinic and sweat lodge, and invited the Interior secretary to a powwow.
The occupation drew media coverage and substantial official sympathy — at least at first. Actress Jane Fonda paid a visit. Berkeley community radio station KPFA gave the protesters a radio transmitter. The California State Assembly unanimously passed a resolution supporting them.
A Los Angeles Times editorial opined that “perhaps the occupiers have a point.”
Government officials opted to wait it out. As the months wore on, temperatures dipped near freezing on the 12-acre island and hunger stalked the protest.
A 13-year-old girl among the occupiers died after falling down a stairwell. The government shut off power to a barge the group had used. A fire ripped through buildings.
Trudell publicly vowed to stay. But the protest eventually dwindled. The last 15 demonstrators were removed by federal officers after 19 months. The occupation won widespread attention and was credited with launching a new wave of Native American activism.
By then, the FBI had built a 17,000-page dossier on him. “He’s extremely eloquent,” one FBI memo read, “therefore extremely dangerous.”
In 1979, while Trudell was demonstrating in Washington, D.C., his pregnant wife, Tina Manning, three children and mother-in-law were killed in a fire at her parents’ home on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Nevada. The fire occurred hours after Trudell had burned an American flag at the FBI building in Washington.
Trudell and others said they suspected government involvement. But a cause was never determined.
“One world ended abruptly and completely and could not be resurrected or re-put together,” Trudell told the Los Angeles Times a few years after.
The loss of his family impelled him to write, he said. His poetry was promoted by Dylan and others. Through the rest of his life, Trudell had a coterie of famous fans.
Robert Redford likened him to the Dalai Lama. Jackson Browne, Val Kilmer, Bonnie Raitt and others offered praise.
Trudell later had a relationship with Marcheline Bertrand, the mother of actress Angelina Jolie, before she died in 2007 of cancer. She was an executive producer of a 2005 documentary about him called “Trudell.” A Times critic faulted the film for its worshipful style but echoed its insistence on the importance of Trudell’s story to counterculture history.
Trudell combined spoken words and music on more than a dozen albums, including one released earlier this year. His fans included Kris Kristofferson, who paid tribute to Trudell with the 1995 song “Johnny Lobo,” a tune Kristofferson still performs live. Trudell also appeared in movies, including 1992’s “Thunderheart,” starring Val Kilmer, and 1998’s “Smoke Signals,” starring Adam Beach.
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In 2012, Trudell and singer Willie Nelson co-founded Hempstead Project Heart, which calls for the legal cultivation of hemp for clothing, biofuel and food.
Trudell considered poetry to be first among the arts. “When one lives in a society where people can no longer rely on the institutions to tell them the truth, the truth must come from culture and art,” he said.
Leovy is a Times staff writer; Jablon reports for the Associated Press.
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