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John Trudell: Human Being



“I don’t want to tell people how to remember me. I want people to remember me as they remember me.” —John Trudell

“He got a fast horse. Comanche warriors made sure he got their best. Hoofbeats thunder through the Time Ripple, cracking open the curtains that divide the spirit worlds, casting sparks back our way. Let’s gather them up and build fires.” — Greta Montagne 

There’s a reason John Trudell is in the Counterculture Hall of Fame. Several reasons.

The great Santee Sioux poet/philosopher/warrior passed December 8, 2015 after a long bout with cancer. He was at peace, surrounded by family and friends; many had tirelessly helped care for John thru this transition. He lived a magnificent life. He was 69.

After serving in the Navy in Vietnam, John was instrumental in the 1969-70 Alcatraz Occupation by the Indians of All Tribes. Alcatraz jump-started the Native Rights Movement. He went on to be a founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and became its only Chairman.

Termination and Restoration

“If you can’t change them, absorb them until they simply disappear into the mainstream culture. …In Washington’s infinite wisdom, it was decided that tribes should no longer be tribes, never mind that they had been tribes for thousands of years.”— Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell

One of AIM’s greatest accomplishments on John’s watch was drawing attention to the odious policy of Tribal Termination and the eventual rollback of Termination and the Restoration of tribal rights and some Native lands. AIM walked (The Longest Walk) from California to DC and occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) headquarters building. While there, AIM activists discovered secret plans to Terminate even more tribes and blew the entire thing wide open.

John paid a serious price for his activism. His buddy Kris Kristofferson wrote this song Johnny Lobo about it.

Later Years

Trudell went on to become a noted environmental activist. He was arrested along with his roommate Jackson Browne, counterculture icon Wavy Gravy and 2000 others at a protest against the Diablo Canyon Nuclear plant in California. Famously, they somehow got a guitar smuggled into the men arrestees holding area and started a concert. That led to his friend and ally Bonnie Raitt, Holly Near and others demanding equal rights to a guitar for the women’s area. Yep. They got their guitar and concert, as well.

John was an outspoken advocate for the rights of other species. He quickly joined in the forest protection efforts of the 1980s and the effort to curtail fossil fuel use and carbon pollution. He supported the efforts to defend Native Fishing rights.

John became an actor in many of the seminal pro-Native movies of the late 20th Century. Perhaps his most complete role was in the contemporary western mystery Thunderheart. He also was in the great film Smoke Signals, based on a Sherman Alexie short story. And, my absolute favorite – Powwow Highway.

Gaian Poet/Activist

Trudell was a gifted linguist. In his amazing 17,000-page FBI dossier, it becomes clear that the FBI feared his verbal skill the most. “Articulate” appears repeatedly.

John first started setting his poetry to music in collaboration with his good friend, the legendary Kiowa guitarist Jesse Ed Davis. Their collaboration AKA Graffiti Man is superb. Bob Dylan called it the best album of the year.

John’s life-long buddy Quiltman, a T’ygh longhouse drummer/singer, who signs Native songs on that album and John began their effort as Tribal Voice and set about criss-crossing Indian Country performing and doing Q & A with Native youth. Many young Natives see John Trudell as “the Elder me and my friends listen to the most.”


John and Quilt.  Earth Day, Washington DC back in the day. (Photo: Rick Powers)

From there, it all evolved into Bad Dog, with John and Quilt being joined by the great guitarist Mark Shark, Rocky Eckstein, Billy Watts and others. Bad Dog put out numerous CDs, Including the superb Wazi’s Dream earlier this year. John and Bad Dog recorded up to the end – even recording three songs from the hospital the day before Thanksgiving.

Hemp Activist


2015 (Photo: Karen Rudolph)

Coming from a culture that has been devastated by alcohol, John became an early advocate for Cannabis as a healing Earth Medicine. John and Bad Dog performed at many pro-Cannabis events across the globe. They are beloved internationally.

Quickly, John saw the potential in the restoration of America’s Industrial Hemp industry. In 2012, he and another of his many activist friends Willie Nelson co-founded the Hempstead Project Heart, which advocates for industrial hemp as the eco-friendly alternative source of fiber and food.

There is so much more. I’ve barely touched on all of John’s Gaian activism. Suffice to say the world is a far better place because of John Trudell. He touched the hearts of thousands.  An autobiography is in the works.

Coyote to the end, John had someone make one final post to his Facebook page yesterday afternoon after he passed.

It read, simply:

“My ride showed up”

“Celebrate Love. Celebrate Life”

John Trudell
February 15, 1946 – December 8, 2015


Donnelly and Trudell.

PS My dad always said, “The hardest part about growing old is your friends dying.” And when your friend is also your hero…

I’ve known about the illness from the beginning. One memory I’ll cherish is when Quiltman and I went down to the Bay Area to hang with John two springs ago. John was in the thick of treatment and holing up. On a beautiful sunny day, John, Quilt and I walked up and down Haight Street in silence, all lost in our memories.

It’s hard to put in words just what John means to me and the planet, as I’m sure it is for all John touched in his remarkable life. I’ll sure miss him and our far-ranging conversations.

As I noted, the world is a far better place because of John Trudell. I am a better human because of John Trudell.

Ride with the Wind, Brother Coyote


MICHAEL DONNELLY has been an environmental activist since before that first Earth Day. He was in the thick of the Pacific Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign; garnering some collective victories and lamenting numerous defeats. He can be reached at

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