John Trudell


The Film


A ’70s-era photograph: Close-up of John Trudell, with long wavy dark hair; he talks into two microphones as a woman, in shadow, sits in the background. He wears a black leather jacket and a black fedora with a white bandana tied above the brim. 

A man, his back to the camera, stands on the steps of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington, D.C. and sets fire to a large upside down American flag. He wears a long black coat and a black fedora.

1980 photo of John Trudell, with long dark hair, a mustache and a light beard, holding a microphone and talking; he wears a modern traditional Native American shirt with thick ribbons on the front and sleeve.

He stands alone as being the most effective Native American activist we have today.
—Bonnie Raitt

TRUDELL follows the extraordinary life of Native American poet and activist John Trudell, from his impoverished childhood in Omaha to his leadership in the American Indian Movement (AIM) and his reincarnation as an acclaimed musician and spoken word poet. Using decades-old 16 mm and Super 8 film and video footage as a backdrop, filmmaker Heather Rae paints an intimate portrait of a man whose spirit and words have awakened the Native consciousness.

The film begins in the late 1960s, when Trudell and a community group, Indians of All Tribes, occupied Alcatraz Island for 21 months in a symbolic effort to claim the island for the Indian people. The event brought international attention to the American Indian cause and helped to ignite the contemporary Indian People’s Movement.

“What Alcatraz meant was that for the first time we saw young Native people standing up and saying we have rights,” said Cherokee leader and Alcatraz activist, Wilma Mankiller.

After the Alcatraz occupation, Trudell went on to become national spokesman of the American Indian Movement, earning a reputation as one of the most volatile political “subversives” of the 1970s. The FBI dossier on Trudell exceeded 17,000 pages, one of the longest in the bureau’s history.

1970s studio portrait of a Native American woman, with long dark straight hair parted in the middle, smiling, surrounded by her children: two young girls on each side and a baby in her lap.
John Trudell’s wife Tina and their children

In 1979, Trudell’s controversial career in politics came to a sudden end. Hours after he burned an American flag in protest on the steps of the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., Trudell’s pregnant wife, three children and mother-in-law were killed in a suspicious house fire on a Nevada reservation. He retreated from the public eye, and spent the next four years driving a car throughout North America. It was during this time that Trudell’s voice as a poet began to surface, giving him a new expression for his powerful opinions and raw emotions.

“About six months after the fire…these lines came into my head and something told me to write them down and not stop writing them,” said Trudell. “They’re called poems but in reality they’re lines given to me to hang on to.”

In 1983 Trudell began to put what he called his “hanging on lines” to music with the help of friend and fellow activist Jackson Browne and Kiowa guitar legend the late Jesse Ed Davis. The recordings drew the attention of musicians, activists and critics and put Trudell into the realm of social theorist and philosopher. In his musical and film career, Trudell has worked with the likes of Robert Redford (Incident at Oglala), Sam Shepard and Val Kilmer (Thunderheart), Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls. Angelina Jolie produced Trudell’s most recent album, Bone Days, and executive produced TRUDELL, the documentary.

Combining interviews with with archival footage, concert clips and abstract imagery, TRUDELL tells the story of a fascinating man and a complex artist whose impact continues to grow.

Find out more about John Trudell’s life in this photo essay >>

Learn about the making of the film. Read the filmmaker Q&A >>

Top photos (L-R)
John Trudell speaks at a press conference during the Alcatraz occupation (1971) Photo: Ilke Hartman

Trudell burns the American flag on the steps of the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. (1979)

Trudell speaks at the Black Hills Survival Summit (1980)


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