However apocryphal the attributions of its origins to Native American prophecy, the "Rainbow Warriors" legend envisions an imperiled earth saved by arrival of spiritually advanced newcomers who unite the races of the world in restorative cooperation. Nobody has perhaps fit that image more closely than American Indian Movement (AIM) leader John Trudell. But as we remember him on the first anniversary of his death on December 8, 2015, the story of his life and work remains largely unknown in the American world of tabloid celebrity.
Trudell is undoubtedly better known among the Standing Rock water protectors. He would be immensely proud of them and immensely pleased by their success as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied an easement for the Dakota Access pipeline. He once said, "Historically speaking, we went from being Indians to pagans to savages to hostiles to militants to activists to Native Americans. It's 500 years later and they still can't see us. We are still invisible."
But if 20,000 American and world citizens united in resistance and camping in bitter cold at Standing Rock, North Dakota is any indication, that's changing. And hopefully in the nick of time as survivors of those once robbed and killed in a massive, continent-wide ethnic cleansing are arising and gathering to save their imperial oppressor from the self-destructive consequences of its own excesses.
Born in 1946 to a Santee Dakota father and Mexican-Indian mother, John Trudell grew up near the Santee Sioux reservation in northern Nebraska, a tiny residual fragment of Sioux lands that once spread across what today are five Midwestern states. Attempting to assert his individual and ethnic identity, as did so many of his forbears before their violent subordination, John's life closely followed the designated Indian role in the American cultural script, disguised but little now from those of the Republic Pictures westerns of the 1930s through 1950s.
The FBI replaced the US cavalry in the 20th century, introducing more covert methods of racist suppression including a 10-year, 17,000-page file on Trudell emphasizing his threat as a gifted speaker and organizer. In 1969, John first gained unwelcome FBI attention as a conspicuous member and principal spokesman for the 89-member Indians of All Tribes 19-month occupation of the vacated Alcatraz federal prison, citing an 1868 treaty with the Sioux that gave American Indians the right to unused federal property on Indian land. They demanded the right to develop Alcatraz as a cultural and education center. Trudell conducted news conferences, delivered regular "Radio Free Alcatraz" broadcasts, and rejected a government proposal that the island be turned into a park with "maximum Indian qualities," saying, "We will no longer be museum pieces, tourist attractions and politicians' playthings. There will be no park on this island because it changes the whole meaning of what we are here for."
"If you wanted to make it in America as an Indian," Trudell later reflected, "you had to become a hollow person and let them remold you...Alcatraz put me back into my community and helped me remember who I am. It was a rekindling of the spirit."
An organizer of the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties occupation of the Washington DC Bureau of Indian Affairs office, John became national chairman of AIM in 1973 following the 71-day standoff with federal marshals and FBI agents by Oglala Lakota and AIM activists occupying Wounded Knee, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation protesting U.S. government treaty violations and interference in a tribal dispute. Trudell testified in the 1974 trials of two defendants, AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means accused of conspiracy and assault, who were both acquitted on grounds of government misconduct.
In 1979 Trudell finally went too far, stretching the patience of his colonial masters beyond tolerable limits by burning an American flag on the steps of the FBI building in Washington, declaring the flag desecrated by our government's treatment of American Indians and other targeted minorities. Within 12 hours, a fire destroyed their family home on the Shoshone-Paiute Reservation on the Nevada-Idaho border, burning to death his sleeping pregnant wife Tina, three young children and mother-in-law. He had received a previous warning, transmitted indirectly, that his family would be killed if he continued his work for Indian rights. The awful message was clear. This obvious, vengeful government atrocity was intended to intimidate other AIM activists unafraid for their personal safety who would nevertheless not risk the safety of their loved ones. It is noteworthy that the FBI declined to conduct an arson investigation.