He was JT to his contemporaries—too charismatic for just plain John; too Native for such a European name as Trudell, although it’s one of the most common last names in the Santee Sioux Tribe in Nebraska.
Calling JT solely by his last name always sounded rude to me, but it didn’t seem so as the title of the film about his life (Trudell by Heather Rae, 2005). (Trudell is not to be confused with the actual-events-based, but fictional movie, which many of us think of as a documentary, wherein JT plays the shape-shifting rez warrior, Jimmy Looks Twice, hunted by the law (Thunderheart, Michael Apted, 1992).
I got to talk with JT before he made his journey to the other side. He was already on his way and eager to unite with the Ancestors. He was concerned that people might be sad or confused. Upbeat and energetic, he wanted everyone to celebrate his passage and to know that he was content and had no fear. But, then, JT always was fearless.
His disembodied voice sounded strong and healthy over the telephone, in sharp contrast to those startling photos showing his skeletal frame. “It’s not like it was with Angie’s mom,” he said, referring to his partner, actor/producer Marcheline Bertrand, the mother of actor/director Angelina Jolie. He said she was ill for six years, before passing in 2007, “and that last year—whew—she was on so much medication, because she was in so much pain.” He said his doctor said, “It won’t be like that with me—there’s not that kind of pain and I’ll go fast.”
As it turned out, he crossed over one week after our talk, which we ended by saying we’d have another soon and knowing we would not.
I knew JT from the late-1960s, when he was in college in California for broadcasting. By 1969, JT was part of United Indians of All Tribes, which occupied Alcatraz Island, and was broadcasting as Radio Free Alcatraz. At that time, only a handful of Native people worked in radio, and we all made a point of knowing and supporting each other.
My husband—Frank Ray Harjo (Wotco Muscogee) (1947-1982)—and I worked at WBAI-FM Radio Station in New York City, co-producing “Seeing Red” and public affairs, drama and literature programs. We often put JT on the WBAI air and picked him up from Pacifica Network’s sister stations in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and he gave a lecture or two for our Native issues series at New York University’s School of Continuing Education. He was a fine teacher and a terrific interview.
Frank Ray liked JT and, more importantly at that time, trusted him. They shared the same birthday, February 15 (JT was born in 1946; Frank Ray in 1947). They didn’t look or act anything like each other—except for their love of the people, search for justice and voices made for midnight radio.
When we started our last talk, I heard something new in JT’s voice. Often when people’s bodies are giving out, even the most self-assured get very humble very fast. I heard hints of JT slipping over the edge from humility to low self-esteem and wanted to awaken his memories of courageous, dignified moments. Sometimes people need to have a little help remembering their lives.
I reminded JT about some moments when he demonstrated high ethical and moral character. He joked that, in his mind at those times, “I just thought I was a kid running around with pot.”
I reminded him of a day in November 1972, at the end of what started as the Trail of Broken Treaties and became a six-day occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C. On that day, $66,000 went from federal coffers to the National Congress of American Indians’ bank account, and NCAI delivered a briefcase of cash to some leaders to end the occupation and go home. Six people got $10,000 each; five left town, leaving everyone else to split up $6,000. Only JT stayed.
People gathered in the BIA cafeteria, where Frank Ray and Gerald Crane (Sac & Fox) tried to work out a distribution formula, with butcher-block paper, an easel and magic markers. It was apparent that the $6,000 was not going to stretch as far as needed.
Most of the people were waiting to see if they could get gas money and something for sandwiches, red pop and, of course, cigarettes. Some of the elders were pretty tired and had modest requests—maybe a night in a motel and a couple of hot meals.
JT jumped onto one of the tables, tossing nearly $10,000 out to the people, saying, “Here’s 10,000 those f**kers aren’t going to get.” No one moved until he finished; then they simply took what they needed to get home. Way beyond a generous gesture, his was a downright noble act.
“Yeah, I saw (Ponca Elder) Martha Grass waiting,” he remembered. “I only took enough for Tina and me to get home.”
I never heard JT talk about his action or motivation before, and I just waited for his unprompted remembrances. “It was about fairness,” he said. “My mother died when I was six and all I could think was it wasn’t fair, that everything was unfair.” When he got older, he didn’t think that things were fair or unfair, but “I always looked for fairness… What you saw was me trying to be fair.”
There was nothing fair about the tragedy that struck seven years later, in 1979. Tina Manning (Paiute-Shoshone), JT’s wife, who was a water rights activist and education specialist, was killed in her parents’ home on the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada, along with her mother, Leah Hicks Manning, her three children with JT and their unborn son. Her father, former Tribal Chairman Arthur Manning, was badly burned, but survived.
An early report of the federal investigation blamed the fire on spontaneous combustion at three electrical socket sites. After much speculation about possible causes, the origins of the fire were characterized as unknown.
JT was driving from D.C. to a speaking engagement in Pennsylvania when fire consumed those he loved most. As National Chairman for the American Indian Movement, he had made a speech in the front of the FBI building and burned a flag there. He always thought that his family was killed because of his speech and actions at the FBI building.
I was a political appointee in the Carter Administration then. JT stopped by my office for a quick visit before leaving town. He said he was tired of being on the road and looked forward to going home. The nightmarish news from Nevada was carried to me by Interior Department legislative, public affairs and law enforcement officials, who asked if I knew where he was going and if I wanted to contact state governors’ offices to have them send the highway patrol to stop JT and tell him what happened. I contacted the people he’d stayed with in Washington and everyone agreed that no good could come from that. So, everyone waited until he reached his destination, and a close friend called him.
As JT said many times in many ways: “I simply lost my mind.” He would tell friends, old and new: “I’m crazy, you know; just so you know that.” And: “I’m crazy, but I’m not always wrong.”
JT became a vibrant, original poet, writing what he called “lines” and “lines from Tina,” saying that he had to hold, to follow them “to stay alive.” When we read together in Oklahoma, New Mexico and elsewhere, the raw truth and beauty of his work often left me almost too filled with emotion to continue.
He also became a recording artist. Guitarist/producer Jesse Ed Davis (Kiowa & Comanche), Quiltman (Milt Sahme, Tygh from the Warm Springs Reservation), his band, Bad Dog, and other musicians set JT’s lines to a blend of rock, blues, jazz and traditional Native music. One time JT called me about his hugely successful A.K.A. Grafitti Man, saying, “People are calling me a rock star and I can’t play the guitar or sing a note.”
JT suffered another major loss in 1988, with the sudden passing of his friend, Jesse Ed Davis (1944-1988), a rock legend who was greatly admired by fellow musicians. JT asked if I would produce a memorial concert for the 1989 Oklahoma City convention of the National Congress of American Indians, which I was serving as Executive Director.
The concert honored Tina and Jesse Ed on the tenth anniversary of her passing and one year after his. Arthur Manning, who was active in NCAI, helped plan it and was front and center at the concert, with many other relatives and friends of Tina and Jesse Ed.
Among the featured artists were singer/songwriter/musician/actor Kris Kristofferson, guitarist Mark Shark, Quiltman and JT. During an on-site production meeting, JT looked across the hotel atrium and saw people he had faced off against during the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation, who were there in opposition to the candidate JT favored for NCAI leadership. “When the lines get drawn,” said JT, “they stay drawn.”
JT always could be relied on to do what he could to protect Native land, especially sacred places. He stepped up for Hickory Ground Tribal Town and Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma, and denounced the Poarch Band of Creek Indians’ desecration of the historic, ceremonial and sacred Hickory Ground in Wetumpka, Alabama.
Even when JT’s health failed, his commitment never did. In our final call, he talked about what “an honor and privilege” it was for him to work for the Ancestors at Hickory Ground. And Hickory Ground Warriors were there with him as he began his last journey.
His old friend, Kris Kristofferson, wrote the 1995 song, Johnny Lobo, about JT, and it seems fitting to end these honor lines with his lyrics:
Holy phoenix rising from the ashes
Into the circle of the sun
Johnny lobo’s warrior heart was burnished in the embers
And the battle’s just begun