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John Trudell Rose From Tragedy To Influence Generations

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John Trudell | Photo: Vision Maker Media

December 15 is the birthday of Brazilian environmental activist Chico Mendez, who was assassinated at age 44 on December 22, 1988 in retaliation for his work to protect the rainforest. To honor Mendez, KCET's Redefine is using this week to profile Californians whose work on behalf of the environment has been met with retaliatory violence.

Most Californians familiar with the life and work of John Trudell, who died December 8, will likely categorize his political work as "Native Rights Activism." And that's not unreasonable: Trudell identified first and foremost as an activist speaking out for the rights of North America's original inhabitants. As a broadcaster, a poet-musician, and the first Chairman of the American Indian Movement, Trudell raised the profile of the grassroots Native Rights movement.

But Trudell didn't pigeonhole his activism. He was an environmental activist as well, and an anti-war and social justice activist, and his work for a healthier, more peaceful world flowed from the same philosophical wellspring as his work for Native people's rights. "It's about our D and A," Trudell said in 1997. "Descendants and ancestors. We are the descendants and we are the ancestors. D and A, our DNA, our blood, our flesh and our bone, is made up of the metals and the minerals and the liquids of the earth. We are the earth. We truly, literally and figuratively are the earth."

That activism did not come without cost. Early on in his activist career, the FBI began to target Trudell, whose FBI file was at one point the largest ever compiled on an individual American citizen. And in 1979, amid increasing threats from opponents of his activism, John Trudell suffered one of the worst tragedies imaginable, in what many still feel was direct retaliation for the activist work of Trudell and his wife, Tina Manning.

 

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Founded in 1968 in the wake of the Alcatraz Occupation, the American Indian Movement had always paid attention to environmental problems, which often affected Native people disproportionately. By 1979 that focus had become explicit, and AIM was working hand-in-hand with anti-nuclear groups on issues such as the proposed expansion of gold and uranium mining in South Dakota's Black Hills.

 

As Trudell got more active on the national scene, Tina Manning became an effective activist back in her hometown, on the Duck Valley Shoshone-Paiute Reservation in northern Nevada. The daughter of Tribal leaders, Manning had met Trudell in 1971 at Tulsa University in Oklahoma. The couple had returned to Manning's hometown to raise a family, with Manning working on local issues while Trudell traveled more widely.

Among the issues facing Duck Valley's native residents was diversion of the water in the Owyhee River for agriculture. Native people had relied on salmon and steelhead in the Owyhee for centuries, but in the 19th Century the local Shoshone and Paiute lost some of their legal rights to the water in favor of the new settlers with their exotic legal codes. Irrigation projects in the 20th Century did major damage to the salmon and steelhead runs.

A settlement of sorts was reached on Duck Valley water rights in 2007, but in 1979 that settlement was far in the future. Manning, as a well-respected local girl with a good education and remarkable political savvy, set to work uniting the occasionally fractious residents of the Duck Valley reservation to advocate for their fair share of the Owyhee's water from the nearby Wildhorse Reservoir, encountering vehement opposition from the local (white) powers that be, as well as from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Meanwhile, Trudell was involved in AIM organizing on a national scale. The group was ramping up activism in coalition with antinuclear groups in the Black Hills -- a ceremonial walk would take place through the Hills that year, and a global International Survival Gathering was already being planned in the Black Hills for the next year.

Meanwhile AIM's and Trudell's work continued on social justice issues less-directly related to the environment, including the continuing legal fallout from conflict between Native Activists and the FBI at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1972. On February 11, 1979, at a demonstration outside FBI Headquarters in Washington, DC, Trudell gave an impassioned speech and the lit an American flag on fire.

A few hours later, at 1:30 a.m. on February 12, a fire of suspicious origin consumed the Duck Valley house of Arthur Manning, Tina's father. Tina Manning, her mother, and Manning and Trudell's three children -- Ricarda Star (age 5), Sunshine Karma (3), and Eli Changing Sun (1) -- died in that fire, as did Manning's unborn child, whom she and Trudell had named Josiah Hawk.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs investigated the fire and deemed it "accidental," a finding that few familiar with the case take seriously. Trudell had received threats of violence related to his work, but as he pointed out in the 2005 documentary Trudell, "For anyone to think that what happened to her happened to her as specifically something just related to me, it minimizes who she is."

"I died then," Trudell said. "I had to die in order to get through it... and if I can get through it, maybe I could learn how to live again. Putting my love into the ground like this, putting my love in boxes, putting them into the ground and covering them up reconnected me to the Earth."

If the juxtaposition of Native and environmental issues in the context of the deaths of Tina Manning and her children with Trudell seems unusual, it's not. In 2014, the group Global Witness reported that more than 900 environmental activists had been murdered in retaliation for their efforts to protect the planet between 2002 and 2013, with the annual death toll rising almost every year. Worldwide, a sobering percentage of those environmentalists targeted have been indigenous activists, for whom the struggles to protect their local landscape and their cultures are usually irrevocably intertwined.

Trudell lived for almost 37 years after losing Manning and their children. (That's longer than the entire lifespan of David "Gypsy" Chain, whose activism and untimely death we'll also be covering in this series.) In that timespan Trudell's activism only increased. He spoke at the Black Hills Survival Gathering in 1980, participated in the massive protests and civil disobedience against the as-yet-uncommissioned Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in 1981, and was involved in environmental causes to numerous to mention, from the movement to legalize industrial hemp to efforts to protect Yellowstone's bison. His writing, an outlet to which he turned in the wake of his family's deaths, brought awareness to global audiences who might not have been receptive to political polemic.

Of all the words Trudell spoke over the years -- and there are many -- few get at the core of who Trudell really was more directly than some from an address he gave at that 1997 event in Berkeley, a memorial for activist Judi Bari, who we will likewise discuss in this series. At that event, Trudell said:

 

We live under an authoritarian system, an industrial technologic mind set that has discovered and developed a way to mine, to take the being part of human, the spirit part of human and convert it into energy and then use that energy to power their system, to run their system. They are literally eating our spirits. Literally eating our spirits... But the antibiotic to dealing with these people, these vampires -- and it is, it is vampires, cannibalization -- the antibiotic to this disease is our intelligence. We were given intelligence by the creator. We have intelligence. That is the antibiotic. That is the cure. There is no existing cure to the problem other than the one we will create by using our intelligence as intelligently and as clearly as we possibly can. To use our intelligence as intelligently as we possibly can.

 

On December 8, the day he died, Trudell posted a last message ft friends and fans on his Facebook page. "My ride showed up," it read. "Celebrate Love. Celebrate Life."

We'll examine the stories of more California activists targeted for their work to save the planet over the course of the week.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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