©Balcony Releasing/Courtesy Everett Collection
ICTMN contributor Sarah Sunshine Manning reflects on the life of "Uncle John" Trudell, the celebrated activist, actor, and poet who walked on December 8.

Manning: The Picture in Our Hallway: My Story Growing up With the (Manning) Trudell Family

Sarah Sunshine Manning

Growing up, we had this picture in our hallway of a beautiful smiling Tina, and her glowing children, Ricarda Star, Sunshine Karma, and Eli Changing Sun. My parents made sure we knew who they were. The little ones were our cousins, and Tina, our auntie. We knew that they were important, and I knew that I shared a name with Sunshine. Yet, tragically, they all perished in a fire just a few years before I was born. As a young girl, from that one picture, this is what I knew.

As I grew older, I remember hearing his name spoken of fondly, by my parents and relatives. John. Uncle John.  JT.  I remember hearing his powerful voice speak over tribal songs, as my big sister played his cassette tape, over and over … and over. Drum beat, beautiful voice of a man and woman singing, and John, laying down rhythmic lines. We listened to songs like “Heart Taker” and “Tina Smiled.” John, I learned, was married to my late auntie Tina, and he was the father of Ricarda, Sunshine, Eli, and the unborn Josiah Hawk. Tina, I learned, was pregnant when they all perished in a fire, and Tina’s mother, Leah Hicks Manning, also perished in the fire along with them.

Tina Manning Trudell and children. Photo courtesy Sarah Sunshine Manning

One day, John showed up to our home, and my parents hugged him, and they all spoke like they were old friends. I later put it all together, that they were great friends, and in our way, my mom and dad would call him brother. John, I later learned, who we were introduced to as our Uncle John, knew just who we were, and we were meeting him for the first time. Or at least I thought so.

And it was like this: my big sister Lynn was the age of the late Sunshine, and sister Morning the age of the late Eli. My sister Dawn would have been the age of Josiah Hawk.

John would return to Duck Valley, intermittently, to visit the graves of his family, and visit old friends and relatives. I didn’t quite understand how it all happened; I just knew that they were lost in the fire and John was not. And I knew that John was important. And I knew that he had a powerful voice, and I knew that we all loved him. And I knew that my parents asked us to acknowledge him as our uncle, out of respect.

As I grew older, I heard John’s name spoken of when the old ones spoke of our old Sundance, up in the mountains. I later learned, that John was an activist. OK. I was putting it all together. And then I later learned, that John’s activism was centered around Native American rights. OK. Got it. I liked that. It was slowly all coming together. Picture in the hallway, music, and John. OK.

As his album, “Tribal Voice,” played throughout our house, it all sounded so beautiful, but when you are that young, you really have no idea what he is saying. What you do know is that you feel power, and you feel good.

RELATED: John Trudell: An Appreciation

As I grew older, my understanding of John, naturally, evolved.  When I moved on to high school, I learned about the American Indian Movement of the 70s, and as many young Natives know, when you learn about AIM, it lights a fire in you, and wakes you up to injustice that our people once faced, and still face. I began to understand the work of our Uncle John, and I began to ask questions to my parents.

What really happened to Tina and the kids?

My mom would get a big lump in her throat, and she still does. The fire was suspected to be foul play. Arson, mysteriously started in the middle of the night, while John was away protesting in D.C. The fire came less than 24 hours after our Uncle John burned the United States flag on the steps of the FBI headquarters. Just hours later, the home of his wife and in-laws on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation went up in flames in the middle of the night. Inside, was his wife, Tina, pregnant with their unborn son, their three children, and Tina’s mom, Leah. They all were lost, and Tina’s father, Arthur Manning, the lone survivor. A tragedy like this, unseen on our reservation.

This tragedy, I later learned, shook our community. And obviously, shook our Uncle John to his core. And shook out Auntie Tina’s sisters, and her cousins, and her friends, and many throughout Indian country.      

John drifted, after the tragedy, into words, and lines. Those lines, a parting gift, he said, from Tina. 

I later learned that Tina embodied, in many ways, the humble strength of our elders. They say she was compassionate, and intelligent – a remarkable combination. She was an activist of water rights, and Native American civil rights, but she was also a tender mother, a skilled craftsmen of traditional arts, and a devoted relative to old ones, and friends, and sisters, and cousins, nieces, and nephews. She gave her children powerful names, and had dreams for them. She wrapped them in beautiful cradle boards, with smoked buckskin, and beadwork. What her legacy might have been materializes in those who still love and remember her today.

From left: Tina Trudell, Ricarda Star Trudell, Sunshine Karma Trudell (in cradleboard), and John Trudell. Photo courtesy Sarah Sunshine Manning.

John remained a part of her. The living embodiment of her, and all of their shared children together. 

As a college student, I listened to John again, and began to piece together his message. Still, I couldn’t completely grasp the depth of it all. In my freshman year, I had an opportunity to invite him to speak at Arizona State University. I remember being awed as he spoke, but I still couldn’t grasp all of it. I was only 18.  But I wanted to understand him more. As I hosted him around the town, and then dropped him off at his hotel to depart, he hugged me and said, “Always remember, I am your ally.”

I listened to more of his music and his talks, slowly understanding, bit by bit. Understanding his message, I learned this is a process of moving toward consciousness, and away from years of social programming. And not only that, you must know what the heck all those big concepts were. This was my early understanding. He would speak far above the consciousness of most, and unabashedly embracing the idea that this made him look “crazy.”


Some years passed, and when I transferred universities I invited John again to the University of Minnesota Morris. Years later, hearing him again, I began to get it, even more. More and more, I was getting it. Perhaps many of us have that experience with John. Each phase of our lives, hearing his same song, or same poem, or similar speech, we understand more and more. Changed, more and more, unable to go back to the unconsciousness of who we once were.

When we learned that our Uncle John was ill, we all prayed that he might stay on this earth a little longer with us. We clung to his words, and the teachings we drew from them. We prayed, and cried, and gave thanks, and held on tight to our relationship with him, whether it was a relationship through words, or song, or through blood, or through a name.

And then, our Uncle John, he flew away, so peacefully. To meet ancestors, and relatives, and Tina, and the kids. My sister, in a bigger understanding, explained it like this: it is as if his energy now is exploding across the universe, like a flash of light, penetrating into the atmosphere, and changing it forever.

I cried so hard. I didn’t completely understand why, because I was happy for him, that he was reuniting with his babies, and Tina, and Leah, and his mother, and other relatives. I just cried, until my eyes were swollen.

What I know now, for certain, is that John, and Tina, and all of their shared beautiful children, changed my world. They shaped me, and my sisters, my cousins, and many of our relatives. They shaped Indian country, with their calming strength, and fiery intelligence. What I know for sure, now, is that I am still learning from them. All of them.

I am grateful, beyond any combination of the most powerful words, for all of their lives and their most beautiful legacy that continues to reverberate across our world. So many lives have been changed, and impacted, and many more will continue to be influenced just the same. And my one experience alone is but a small ripple in the bigger pool of John and Tina’s influence. I love them both, as we all do. In honor of the late John Trudell, and Tina Manning Trudell, her mother Leah Hicks Manning, and precious children, Ricarda Star, Sunshine Karma, Eli Changing Sun, and Josiah Hawk, who are smiling in the spirit world, reunited with their daddy. I am thankful.

Sarah Sunshine Manning

Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.

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