San Bernardino Valley College hosted its first John Trudell Poetry Festival on November 16 to commemorate the life and work of the famous SBVC alumni after which it is named. An outspoken advocate of Native American rights, Trudell’s legacy of poetry and songwriting about righteous defiance was celebrated at the inaugural event.

Born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1946, Trudell grew up on the Sioux Santee Reservation near the South Dakota border. He later dropped out of high school to serve in the Vietnam War. After four years in the Navy, Trudell enrolled at San Bernardino Valley College in 1967 because it was the only community college at the time with a radio and television broadcasting department. 

In an interview with The Inland Empire Community Newspaper in 2013, Trudell said he learned all aspects of television production at SBVC, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. After he completed two years on campus, he found an opportunity to make an impact on his Native American colleagues.  

In 1969, Trudell brought his family to Alcatraz as part of a Native American effort to reclaim the island they considered ancestral land. He credited his broadcasting experience at SBVC as the reason he was able to convey the Native American point of view during his 19-month occupation. Trudell was the spokesman during the protest, answering media queries and broadcasting live on “Radio Free Alcatraz”. The stay on Alcatraz served as an enormous rallying point for future Native American causes.

The Alcatraz occupation led to 10 more years of American Indian activism by Trudell.  He went on to serve as national chairman of the activist American Indian Movement from 1973 to 1979. However, his activism days ended when his pregnant wife and three children died in a suspicious house fire just hours after Trudell publicly burned an American flag on the steps of an FBI building in Washington D.C. The loss of his family compelled Trudell to turn to music and poetry, where he soon garnered the praise of many fans. 

Trudell combined spoken words and music on more than a dozen albums, and he also appeared in movies, including 1992's "Thunderheart," 1998's "Smoke Signals". He was featured in numerous documentaries about indigenous rights and struggles. He also starred in his own biographical film Trudell, which was produced by Marcheline Bertrand, mother of actress Angelina Jolie. 

In 2012, Trudell pursued his passion of environmental conservation with singer Willie Nelson. The two co-founded Hempstead Project Heart, which advocates for legalizing the growing of hemp for industrial purposes as a more environmentally sound alternative to crops used for clothing, biofuel and food.

Trudell died in 2015 at the age of 69 from cancer. However, his legacy continues at his alma mater in the form of the Inaugural John Trudell Poetry Festival. The celebration, hosted by the campus’s Arts, Lectures, and Diversity Committee, recognized the life and work of this influential writer and activist. Jessica Helen-Lopez, past Poet Laureate to Albuquerque, New Mexico, as well as Joe Limer and Pretty Blaq presented their poetry and helped celebrate the life of Trudell. The event ended with an open mic, where students, staff, and faculty shared their own poetry and other written works.

SBVC plans to continue this event every year to acknowledge Trudell’s legacy and celebrate the community’s poetry.