Our family was honored that the University of Nebraska at Omaha created a guest lecture series in recognition of our brother Johnny. He was a well-known activist, poet and actor. All three facets of his life focused on the same goal – equality for not just Native Americans, but all mistreated people.
Native American Studies professors Dr. Kent Blansett and Dr. Elaine Nelson sought to name the series after the right person. They wanted to honor a person who dedicated their life’s work for the betterment of Native Americans. They decided it should be the John Trudell Distinguished Lecture Series. Johnny was born in Omaha, before eventually living on the Santee reservation in northeastern Nebraska.
Johnny’s life trail began when he left home to join the Navy in 1963. I was about two years old when he left for the military. He served tours in Vietnam before his discharge four years later. He stayed in California.
Johnny’s career in activism began in the late 1960s when he joined other Native Americans in the occupation of Alcatraz Island, a former prison. He quickly ascended into leadership roles among the hundreds on Alcatraz.
Following the occupation of Wounded Knee by the American Indian Movement in 1973, he assumed the role as the national leader. He held that position through the end of the decade.
Following the death of his wife, Tina, their children and his in-laws, he eventually turned to poetry as a method of dealing with his loss. A friendship developed with musician Jackson Browne, and Johnny’s poetry was turned into song. He teamed with Native musician Jesse Ed Davis to create some great music. Johnny’s band was known as Bad Dog. Johnny performed on stage until shortly before his death from cancer in December 2015.
He acted in several movies, including “Thunderheart,” “Powwow Highway” and “Smoke Signals.” A line from “Smoke Signals” is one of the best said in a movie: “It’s a good day to be indigenous.”
UNO’s decision to honor our brother means more than we can ever say. His memory and work will continue to move forward through the lectures involving Native professors and other speakers. Dr. Amy Lonetree, a Ho Chunk tribal member, was the perfect lecturer for the 2017 series presentation.
Dr. Lonetree is a professor at the University of California Santa Cruz. A scholar and author, she reviewed he current project focusing on her tribal history, including older photographs and tourism. “The Labor of Tourism and Ho-Chunk Survivance” focuses on the tourism involved around the Stand Rock Ceremonial in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. The “attraction” involved tribal members in cultural performances during the summer for area tourists. The event occurred every summer from the 1920s through the 1970s. The tribal pageant involved dances and songs. During the day, the Ho Chunk would share tribal “customs” with the tourists.
Tribal members were grossly underpaid for their work. Dr. Lonetree’s family was involved with trying to improve the situation for the performers.
As part of the event, a drum group from Santee performed tribal songs for the more than 160 people in attendance. Maza Kute was one of Johnny’s favorite drum and singing groups. Some of the members are family relatives.
I have to admit I was emotionally moved throughout the event, but especially at the end. The UNO Native American Studies department presented Dr. Lonetree with a star quilt as a thank you gesture. A star quilt carries special meaning for our people. It is an honor to receive one. The quilts were made by Rose Oren of Sioux Falls, SD. She is a member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation.
I felt so proud when they presented my daughter, Stephanie, with a quilt, as well. She helped Dr. Blansett and Dr. Nelson with some details. When they asked me to step forward to receive a quilt, I was shocked and honored. All I did was help arrange the drum group. I didn’t think I did anything quilt worthy. But, it was an honor I accepted for our family.
UNO will always have a special spot in my heart for its recognition of my brother and his legacy. We are looking forward to next year’s lecture, which is tentatively planned for February. More family members, including some of Johnny’s children, plan to attend.
If you’re interested in learning more about UNO’s Native American Studies, please visit www.unomaha.edu/college-of-arts-and-sciences/native-american-studies. If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Amy Lonetree and her writings, please visit www. humanities.ucsc.edu/about/singleton.php?&singleton=true&cruz_id=lonetree.