John Trudell grew up on/near the Santee Sioux Indian Reservation on the border of South Dakota and Nebraska. Until the 1860s, the Santees had lived in present-day Minnesota. After whites invaded their territory, the tribe took refuge with the Teton Sioux. Skirmishes with whites continued until 1890, the year of the Wounded Knee massacre which ended the Sioux's military resistance.
Trudell saw the legacy of the Sioux's defeat. Reservations destroyed the traditional economy and culture. The Sioux had high unemployment, inadequate housing and health care, and few educational opportunities. Reservation Indians had become the poorest minority in the United States.
An inspirational speaker, acclaimed poet, national recording artist, actor and activist, Trudell was a spokesperson for the Indians of All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969-1971. He served a Chairman of the American Indian Movement (AIM) from 1973-1979. A few hours after Trudell burned the American flag during a protest in Washington, DC, a fire of unknown origin killed his wife Tina, three children, and his mother-in-law while they were sleeping.
It was through this horrific tragedy that Trudell began to find his voice as an artist and poet, writing, in his words, “to stay connected to this reality”. Trudell often speaks of the need for “coherent thinking”.
In addition to his music career, Trudell has played roles in a number of feature films, including a lead role in the movie Thunderheart and a major part in Sherman Alexie's Smoke Signals. He most recently played Coyote in Hallmark's made-for-television film, Dreamkeeper. His autobiographical DVD Trudell is fascinating.
The John Trudell Documentary provides insight into the importance of Trudell's message to the world.