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John Trudell, Indigenous activist, poet and songwriter died of cancer on Tuesday, December 8 in his home in Santa Clara County, California. The firebrand and eloquent speaker was 69 years old.

Trudell was from the Santee Dakota nation and rose to prominence as the national chairman of the American Indian Movement (AIM) during the 70s when there was near constant strife between First Nations activists and the federal government and its Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

At times, Indigenous activists had only the AIM to call upon if a community faced mistreatment from federal Indian agents and their lakees. Chapters were established all across the country.

Trudell became national chairman after the infamous incident at Wounded Knee, South Dakota which began in February of 1973. 

Oglala Lakota members from the Pine Ridge reservation (Porcupine Ridge) — known for the brutality of federal and tribal law enforcement and incensed by tribal corruption, and members from AIM chapters from across the United States, occupied the town in a 71-day standoff with federal marshals and F.B.I. agents.

This is where Trudell and Leonard Peltier’s lives intersect in a tragic way. Peltier was convicted of murdering ­two federal agents. Today, he is ailing in prison with a global movement behind him that insists Peltier was framed and should be pardoned. It was into this world that Trudell stepped up with his multi-angled approach to activism.

At first glance, Trudell’s story could be seen as one of profound tragedy as he lost his family to a house fire.

In February 1979 at Duck Valley Reserve, while Trudell was out of town, his pregnant wife, Tina Manning (who was an activist of the DuckWater Shoshone band), their three children and Manning’s mom were all killed in a house fire. Only Manning’s father survived. Suspicions around the cause of the fire exist to this day.

At the same time, Trudell has had a larger than life existence. He was one of the key players in the occupation of Alcatraz by First Nations activists under the banner of Indians of All Tribes (IOAT).

The Alcatraz Occupation lasted for 19 months, from November 20, 1969 to June 11, 1971. It was forcibly ended by the United States government.

According to IOAT, the historical Fort Laramie treaty between the Lakota Nation and the federal government — considered a national disaster to American Indians — all retired, abandoned or out-of-use federal land was to be returned to the Indigenous people from whom it was obtained.

Since the Alcatraz penitentiary had closed on March 21, 1963, and then the island had been declared surplus federal property the following year, a number of Indigenous activists felt the island qualified for reclamation.

In the early morning hours of November 20, 1969, 89 American Indians, including students, married couples and six children, set out to occupy Alcatraz Island and the decommissioned prison complex located here. Only 14 demonstrators made it to the island due to a U.S. Coast Guard blockade. At the height of the occupation there were 400 people. 

But in January 1970, a 12-year-old child tragically fell to her death. By late May, the government cut off all electrical power and telephone service to the island. A fire the next month of disputed origin destroyed numerous buildings on the island and the occupation began to fall apart. On June 11, 1971, a large force of government officers removed the remaining 15 people from the island.

Even though parts of the occupation was contentious, the act is almost mythical in proportion and has served to embolden and inspire First Nations activists from then on. And always on or near the front lines, either through verse or presence, Trudell was at the heart of it all.

So when I heard that he had died, one of my first thoughts was to hold some sort of candlelight vigil, even if it was just me. So I did. 

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Krystalline Kraus

krystalline kraus is an intrepid explorer and reporter from Toronto, Canada. A veteran activist and journalist for, she needs no aviator goggles, gas mask or red cape but proceeds fearlessly...