Cover photo from Trudell's album, "A.K.A. Grafitti Man".
"The great lie is that it is civilization. It's not civilized. It has been literally the most blood thirsty brutalizing system ever imposed upon this planet. That is not civilization. That's the great lie—is that it represents civilization."—John Trudell
John Trudell passed away December 8 after a long illness, and he will most assuredly be remembered as the most prolific, vocal, dogmatic, and creative members of the American Indian Movement.
His life was like a film—as dramatic, moving, cerebral, evolutionary, and as epic as any blockbuster. He was a survivor and a jokester; a trickster of sorts. Trudell was able to bring his strengths as an activist into the arena of the arts, intact and incensed. An American Indian Movement co-founder, he channeled the pain and loss in his life into his art, making him one of the leading voices of the human spirit in the artistic community.
I once ran into Trudell at party in Hollywood twenty-five years ago. As he was smoking corporate tobacco, I took the opportunity to harangue him in a friendly way: "John! What are you doing smoking corporate cigarettes?” The least he could do, I told him, is to smoke American Spirit tobacco.
Trudell, whom I had befriended previously at anti-nuclear demonstrations, looked at me with his even, stoic face, and slowly took off his (then) trademark sunglasses. Staring at me straight in the eyes with no irony, he said "I'm very suspicious of anything that calls itself American Spirit." Coming from Trudell, that meant a great deal. Hounded by the FBI for years (they compiled a file in excess of 17,000 pages on him), he was heavy cat whose life was fuelled by tragedy, passion, and history.
Trudell's voice as a poet distinguished him as the unofficial bard of the Native American Community. You can almost hear him smirking through some of the cuts on his albums. Likewise, the searing pain is self evident in the passion of his lyrics-poems. His creative lifework served as catharsis for the pain and loss he experienced.
Born and raised in eastern Nebraska on and around the Santee Sioux reservation, he came from a mother whose tribal roots were in Mexico, in the Chihuahua and Michoacan regions where her father ran with Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution. Trudell's father was Santee Sioux. Hardship was part of Trudell's youth, his mother passed away when he was only six, leaving a large family. His boyhood was divided between Omaha where his father worked, and his grandparents' home on the reservation. He watched as his father struggled to raise the family. This taught him a deep contempt for the American work ethic. In 1963, faced with limited economic opportunities, Trudell joined the Navy and found active duty in the waters off of Vietnam on a ship doing search and rescue for downed pilots.
Trudell began his life as an activist when he joined the Indians of All Tribes 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay and became the spokesperson for the action. A broadcasting student in college, he went on air with a radio show from the island called Radio Free Alcatraz. The takeover was quickly recognised as a watershed event in the struggle in native cultural and land rights.
AIM sprang from its wake and Trudell gravitated toward other young militant Native Americans like himself. He participated in the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties, a national car-caravan that brought together more than 2,000 urban and reservation Indians from across the nation to present a formal list of demands to the federal government.
Failure of communication resulted in an impasse and a 71-hour occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington D.C. Trudell's effectiveness as a speaker throughout the turbulent affair gained him the scrutiny of the FBI. In 1973, when he was elected co-chair of AIM, the scrutiny intensified. Later that same year he participated in the historic seizure of Wounded Knee, a small town in the heart of the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation of South Dakota. During the period, using his uncanny abilities for candid, brutal irony, Trudell continued to make enemies with his bold statements concerning AIM, Native rights, and federal policy.
Trudell ultimately served short prison sentences on several occasions due to his activism. In one facility, an inmate told him that unless he stopped his political efforts, his family might be harmed. In 1976, Trudell coordinated the AIM support of Leonard Peltier, who was convicted of murdering two FBI agents in June 1975 on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
On February 11, 1979 in Washington D.C., to bring attention to the work of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, Trudell delivered a vociferously anti-government speech on the steps of the FBI building during which he burned an upside-down American flag and was arrested. Within 12 hours, at 1:30 in the morning, his pregnant wife Tina, their three children, and his mother-in-law all burned to death in a mysterious fire in their home on the Shoshone Paiute reservation in Nevada. Although the FBI declined to investigate, it was later proved the cause was arson. Trudell repeatedly asserted that he suspected government complicity in the fire and subsequent deaths.
"It was murder," he once told me.
Devastated, Trudell withdrew from public life. He concluded that maintaining AIM as a formal national organisation was accomplishing little beyond providing a list of preselected targets for government repression. He engineered the abolition of all national titles, beginning with his own chairmanship, and the dissolution of the national office in Minneapolis. Thereafter, the movement was continued solely on the basis of local, autonomous initiatives. "I didn't leave the American Indian Movement, I left political activism,” he told me. "I started writing. Coming from political activism, I needed to be real to me. Art took me away. I needed to recognize that my political action days were a part of me. Art gave me a direction to go in. It's part of my consciousness now.” He added,
"I'm a man who has been a political activist, who has a political consciousness, and who can write poetry.”
After the loss of his family, to help get through the profound heartache, Trudell traveled 100,000 miles over the next three years. His creative spirit blossomed as he discovered his poetic gift. "My poetry was born out of the rage of losing my family, but also out of pain, clarity, and confusion. My whole life experience. When bad things happened, poetry exploded out of me. I've been told people perceive anger in my work. I don't have a problem with that anger. Fear and courage are part of the natural process. I didn't discover my poetic gift, it discovered me."
What was initially just therapy became something larger, as he began incorporating poetry into his speaking engagements. As he reconfigured his life after AIM, Trudell became involved with environmentalists opposing nuclear energy. At a 1979 rally to protest uranium mining, near Mt Taylor, New Mexico, he appeared on stage with Jackson Browne. "He was by far the most compelling speaker, Browne remembers, "very impassioned, with unflinching honesty and a certain good will, even when he was talking about 500 years of abuse."
Trudell recorded an album, "A.K.A Grafitti Man" (with "graffiti" misspelled in the title) in 1986 with Jesse Ed Davis (a Kiowa known for recording with Taj Mahal, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, John Lennon, and Conway Twitty). This re-recording moved among the Native communities by cassette as was common in the community at the time. In 1992, Trudell remade and re-released "A.K.A Grafitti Man" as a CD. Trudell went on to become the most well-known Native American rock and roll poet, with early fans such as Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson helping him with encouragement and support.
Over time, he refined his performance delivery and style and appeared on stage on both Midnight Oil and Peter Gabriel's WOMAD tours. Between 1993 and 2015 he appeared on 15 albums and toured extensively with his multicultural band Bad Dog. His music drew from his own poetry and a variety of musical genres, rock, blues and native beats, and political protest songs. His unique, moving, evocative content and slow, deliberate cadence earned him fans around the world.
He authored two books, Living in Reality: Songs Called Poems, Society of the People Struggling to be Free, 1982, and Stickman: Poems, Lyrics, Talks, 1999. During the 1990s and 2000s, Trudell acted in a variety of films, including Thunderheart, Powwow Highway, Some Say Phoenix Arizona, Extreme Measures, On Deadly Ground, and Smoke Signals.
Trudell's AIM past proved useful in 2004, when he testified on behalf of the prosecution in the trial of two men who were found guilty in taking part in the 1975 killing of Annie Mae Aquash, a Mi'kmaq woman from Nova Scotia.
Over the years, he appeared in a variety of documentaries about the struggle for indigenous rights and a biographical film, produced by Marcheline Bertrand, mother of actress Angelina Jolie. Trudell and Bertrand were in a relationship for several years before her death from cancer in 2007. In 2005, Bertrand was the executive producer of the documentary Trudell. The film was an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival, and it won the Special Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival.
In the documentary, Robert Redford spoke to Trudell's longstanding concerns for the environment and increasing corporatization of the Earth's resources.
"The conversations I had with him were explosive in their insights, they were exciting," said Redford. "I would imagine it was not too dissimilar for what some people feel when they talk to the Dalai Lama. John was way ahead of the game."
"I see a real future for spoken word with music," Trudell told me 20 years ago. "Poetry," he said, "is based on the oldest oral traditions. In music, lyrics are written to what the math of the music allows us to say; poetry is what we need to say. And to me, it's a canyon worth of difference."
A great deal of his work can be seen on Youtube and the internet as his dedicated fans and associates took advantage of the expanding technology to broaden his audience. In recent years, Trudell had been actively advocating for legalization of hemp cultivation for its many beneficial industrial uses such as fabric, oil and paper pulp. In 2012, he co-founded Hempstead Project Heart with Willie Nelson, a group dedicated to raising awareness about the environmental, social, and health benefits of hemp through collaborations, arts and music.
In recent months, as his illness progressed, Trudell continued to post poems online on his Facebook page. John knew he had many fans that were concerned about his health and supporting him from afar. He wrote them: "I appreciate all of your expressions of concern and I appreciate all of your expressions of love. It has been like a fire to my heart. Thank you all for that fire. But please don't worry about me;I don't want to tell people how to remember me. I want people to remember me as they remember me.”
After he passed his family shared some of his final thoughts via his Facebook page:
"My ride showed up. Celebrate Love. Celebrate Life."
David Kupfer is a writer whose work has appeared in The Progressive, The Sun, Whole Earth, Adbusters, and Earth Island Journal. He lives in Northern California.