John Trudell Mural
AP Images
Poet and Native American activist John Trudell poses against a mural in Santa Monica, California on June 2, 1994.

Remembrances of Trudell: ICTMN’s Columnists Share Their Thoughts


Editor’s Note: The following are only a few of the casual remarks from the thinkers/writers/explorers of thought from ICTMN’s Op-Ed stable. All experienced Trudell’s presence, influence and words in one way or another. And they believe they are better for it.

The idea that this life is a way station on the journeys our spirits have undertaken since time immemorial is not a new concept. Not to the Native people here, in South America, Japan, China, the Middle East or Tibet and the world over.

Because of that fact, we have approached the newcomers, the colonists, the puritans with a degree of hope. A hope that what we do for these newcomers would be enough to show them how honest human beings act among humans of different origins, and towards the earth. That goal has yet to be achieved.

I believe that in the many messages that John Trudell delivered his compass was always pointing the way towards peace. Peace of mind, soul and future.

A few of our columnists share their thoughts and realities of John’s recent embarkation on the ultimate path to spirituality. What we learn on this earth prepares us for after.

Hear now, some voices of John’s impact—or better put, translations of where we are and what needs to be done to survive in a world where being human is in direct relation to the condition of the human spirit.

“I only knew him as a fan. I saw him through the eyes of my mother, who created a small shrine for him in our living room. We watched all his interviews, movie scenes, and followed his career closely. He was an absolute idol (he’d probably resent me writing that). He rejected labels, posed all the right questions, and urged us all to do better as people. He donated work to a journal I curated, making the journal worthwhile. The world was better with him in it.” –Terese Mailhot

“I discovered John Trudell through the movie “Thunderheart.” I was born and raised on the Rez, but growing up, I knew very little about Native history. I’d been taught from colonial textbooks in rural border towns with white instructors. There was no chapter on Indigenous Genocide, let alone Wounded Knee. That movie, and John’s role in particular, spoke to us Rez kids. Then we discovered it was based on actual events. We started to talk to parents, uncles and aunts who were part of the American Indian Movement. They d show us their red berets and tell stories, and the movie and John Trudell became a conduit for us to learn about Native history on our own, activism, and that we could move things as a People, and create change. He represented resilience, hope, and the Spirit of Crazy Horse.

“Because of him, I saw “Incident in Oglala,” and from there it was a chain reaction. John Trudell has had a real influence on the person I am today. He continued to challenge my thought process all my life; forcing me to think of myself as not just a red NDN, but a human being—that religion, politics and the confines of civilization mean very little in as far as who we really are and where we must go if we are to evolve. It’s less about progress, and more about becoming our ancestors.

“I’m sad that he’s passed, but so thankful for all he’s given us.” –Ruth Hopkins

“Sad news. I just saw him a couple months ago at UMass Amherst. We had many good meetings over the years. Hung out and talked. Laughed. Shared ideas, talked about life. Our last words, ‘Hang in there, keep your balance.’

“John was larger than life in some ways, taking on whatever was thrown his way and walking his talk. John was also just an ordinary human being. A real person. His warm eyes and sly smile stay with me. His courage and example strengthen me. I will miss him even as I feel his spirit abiding.

“His words, his music, his poetry, his life example live on.” –Peter d’Errico

“Today is a sad day for Indian country with the passing of John Trudell. For John it is a liberation from the bonds of the physical world and the journey home to be with the family that was so cruelly taken from him. For the rest of us there is an empty space that we fill with words, sacred smoke, and ceremony. My words are my ceremony for John.

“I didn’t know John but I did meet him once in Santa Fe at Indian market when he was performing with his band. It’s a moment I will always treasure because it’s not every day you get to meet a living legend.

“I was 12 years old when Alcatraz happened. I was a mixed blood Colville Indian kid growing up in Los Angeles, confused as hell about what it meant to be Colville in the mean streets of East LA. The Colvilles had for many years been fighting a brutal battle to terminate the reservation, and I remember deep discussions at home where my parents debated whether my mother should vote for or against termination. It would’ve meant a lot of money for us, but at the same time the land would be lost forever.

In 1970 we took a family trip to the reservation to visit relatives, the first time I’d been there since I was a baby. We drove through San Francisco, which was a city on fire with the psychedelia of the counterculture, but also with the activism of urban Indians who on that island were fighting to make a difference for all Indians everywhere. I wasn’t old enough to fully understand what was happening, but I FELT it.

“Going to the rez was life changing for me, even at that young age. I saw the source of the dysfunction I grew up with that is the legacy of people who survived the boarding school experience.  But I also saw the spirits of my ancestors, literally—people who were proud and free, unburdened by the yoke of colonial oppression. They pointed me on a path filled with beauty and love for our ancient ways.

“I came home so proud to be Indian. I watched those Alcatraz Indians on TV during the evening news talking about rights. It planted a seed in me that grew activist roots and blossomed into the intellectual work I do today. I have John Trudell to thank for that, and all the AIM people who were there on the island in that year and a half, sacrificing their lives for the rest of us. Their work and their courage lives on. Thankfully, the Colvilles in my mother’s generation had the wisdom to vote to keep our lands. History has proven that along with those Alcatraz Indians and Indian activists in other parts of the country, they created the groundswell of pride that renewed our people.

“John, journey well into the spirit world. Lem lempt for who you were—and are—to us. Mitakuye oyasin.” —Dina Gilio-Whitaker

“I was honored to open up a poetry reading for John at the AICH-NYC in the 1990s. There was a little dust-up. I was working the Iroquois Confederacy line about how the Iroquois Constitution influenced the U.S. Constitution. John replied, ‘With all due respect, what has Democracy done for us lately?’

“I also would meet him at his shows in Santa Fe as a stagehand and we would talk, poetry, performance, motivation and logistics. I reviewed his first poetry book and saw what was coming, the Voice of a Generation. I imagine an image of John smiling, smiling hard... with the message below... Hard To Kill Indian Poetry.

Peace, Brother.” –Alex Jacobs

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
John Trudell was one NDN I'd always wanted to meet. He experienced such tragedy during his lifetime, but that only solidified his quest to help his people. I'm touched by everyone's words here and am joining them in celebrating a truly great man! The world is a sadder place because you've gone, John.