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Remembering A Native American Actor, Activist, Musician And Poet

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to pause now to mark the passing of John Trudell. He was an outspoken advocate of Native American rights. He was also an actor, a poet and a musician who sought to honor his heritage through his art. He died Tuesday in California at the age of 69. After serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War, Trudell rose to national attention in 1969 when he and a group called Indians of All Tribes staged a high-profile protest in California.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TRUDELL")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: For more than six months, a band of American Indians has been living without government approval on Alcatraz Island, the rock that used to be a federal penitentiary, and all attempts to get them off have so far failed.

MARTIN: That newsreel audio comes from the 2005 documentary "Trudell." The film chronicles a career marked by controversy and tragedy, including his leadership of the American Indian movement during the 1970s and the historic siege at Wounded Knee, S.D. In that action, Trudell and other activists occupied the town of Wounded Knee for months to protest corruption and discrimination.

In 1979, the day after Trudell burned an American flag on the steps of the FBI building in Washington, D.C., his home in Nevada burned down. His mother-in-law, his pregnant wife and their three children all died. While the Bureau of Indian Affairs ruled the fire an accident, Trudell hired his own investigator who concluded that the fire was deliberately set. Trudell reportedly distanced himself from the AIM afterward, but it didn't end his activism. He is speaking at the Black Hills Survival Summit in 1980.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JOHN TRUDELL: They lie to you. They confuse you. They told you that you had freedom and democracy. But you go back and you read your Constitution. You read your Declaration of Independence. And you will see that the only people who could decide these freedoms were white males who owned property, and all the rest of us were excluded.

MARTIN: Trudell's work made him a hero to many Native Americans. Sterlin Harjo is himself an artist who worked with Trudell and was with him the night before he died.

STERLIN HARJO: There was something very magnetic about John. And if John was in a room, people were sort of hovering around that area, no matter he was at, even if he wasn't saying anything. But then he'd open his mouth.

MARTIN: One of his best known spoken word works was "Crazy Horse," which honored the famous 19th century Indian chief.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "CRAZY HORSE")

TRUDELL: Crazy horse, we hear what you're saying. One Earth, one mother - one does not sell the Earth.

MARTIN: John Trudell appeared in several films, including 1992's "Thunderheart" and "Smoke Signals" in 1998. He died of cancer. He is survived by a brother, Roger, and several children and grandchildren. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.