The Truth about Trudell

Santa Fe Reporter | August 17, 2005
John Trudell has no hope. “I don’t like hope,” the Santee Sioux/Mexican Native American says flatly, in the intense, dark voice he’s used over the decades as activist/orator, poet, spoken-word performer, recording artist, singer and actor. “Hope was the last thing to come out of Pandora’s box. It’s a sedative word. If we want something to happen, it’s better to pray; that way we’re activating our intelligence.”

In SFR’s recent interview with John Trudell, it became immediately apparent that he places a very high premium on intelligence, on “clear and coherent” thinking, and that he ascribes most of our current social ills to its absence, while emphasizing that intelligence alone solves nothing. “If we look at the last 40 years,” Trudell says, “obviously the public has not been using its intelligence clearly and coherently, or the reality would be different. I question some of the motives of those in power, but not their intention. They can have the best intentions in the world while still having deviousness in their motives, because they are incoherent, insecure and unclear. People can be very smart; but, you know, there are limitations to being smart.”

Robert Redford has called Trudell a man of “explosive insights,” and he speaks with an urgency bordering on the impatient; one gets the sense that he doesn’t have time or energy to waste—and after watching Heather Rae’s eponymous documentary about the man and his life, it’s not hard to understand why.

Born in 1946 and a veteran of Vietnam, Trudell lived through what he now describes as a “Contra war waged against us by the US government”—“us” being the Native civil rights activists of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the late ’60s and early-to-mid-’70s. “From 1973 to 1976,” he observes, “the political murder rate on Pine Ridge was equivalent to that of the US-supported military coup in Chile during the Pinochet regime”—in all, 69 Natives were killed during what came to be called “The Reign of Terror.” As chairman of AIM from 1973 until 1979, and a leader and public figure from the days of the Alcatraz occupation (where he was officially the national spokesman), Trudell has always been high-profile, and always a target. The Nixon administration’s FBI observed that he was “extremely eloquent and therefore extremely dangerous” and created what was to become a 17,000-page dossier on him; its infamous COINTELPRO operation, launched as a countermeasure against the Black Panthers, soon spread to AIM, planting FBI operatives within the movement and successfully undermining AIM’s activities by keeping its leaders busy fighting legal prosecution.

His political activities alone would have made John Trudell a fascinating subject for documentary filmmaking. But SFR also interviewed producer/director Rae (Cherokee), who runs Idaho production company Appaloosa Pictures with screenwriter Russell Friedenberg; she reports she wanted to make the film for a very different reason. “I’ve been filming Trudell for 13 years, since I saw John in concert in 1992—it’s been a long road. But it started with my having been very deeply influenced by his spoken word, long before I met him. Everywhere I would go, I’d hear Tribal Voice [Trudell’s underground 1982 album], and his words made such a deep impression on me that when I finally met him in 1992 after a show in LA, I approached him right away.”

So how did a firebrand political activist become an artist and performer? Rae notes that many Native languages have no word for “art,” since its facture “didn’t need to be qualified as a separated experience”—and Trudell’s work enacts this idea, being absolutely of a piece with and emerging directly from his experience. In 1979, Trudell led a march to the FBI building, where he burned an American flag, stating that racism and injustice had desecrated it and it therefore should be disposed of properly. Less than 24 hours later, his home with Tina Trudell on the Shoshone Paiute reservation in Nevada mysteriously caught fire, and Tina and her three children, along with Tina’s mother, were all killed in the blaze. Tina was pregnant at the time.

The devastated Trudell withdrew from public life. During the next few years, he traveled (once to Canada, where he sought political asylum), occasionally spoke and did little else, until gradually, he says, “lines” began to come to him: “They were lines given to me to hang onto, my hanging-on lines. Tina gave them to me as a parting gift.” The lines resulted first in a book of poetry, Living in Reality (1981), and then a year later, with the help of friend Jackson Browne, a cassette of Trudell’s spoken word layered over traditional Plains chanting (courtesy of his colleague Quiltman)—Tribal Voice, the underground hit which caught the attention of Heather Rae and many other Native listeners. Soon Trudell recorded his official debut, AKA Graffiti Man, which Bob Dylan called “the best album of 1986.” Also produced by Browne, the album again featured Trudell’s “lines” spoken over Quiltman’s chanting—but this time with the addition of scorching rock ’n’ roll/blues guitar, the electric axe wielded by hugely talented Kiowa musician Jesse Ed Davis (who played with the likes of Clapton, Dylan and Lennon but was to die tragically early from substance abuse).

Together, John Trudell and his band Bad Dog produce sounds unprecedented in American musical history. Blues slide guitar blends

flawlessly with the wailing countertenor of tribal vocals and Trudell’s gravelly Johnny-Cash-meets-Bruce-Cockburn drone, as if the three were meant to go together from the beginning of time—as Alice Walker once envisioned Elvis: “the Choctaw lad with the long black hair, full lips, and sultry eyes…his love of buckskin and fringe, of silver.”

None of this cultural crossover would be as apparent were it not for Rae’s 13 years of meticulous work, another kind of blending. Trudell has lush production values and a translucent depth of image—helicopter shots in 16 mm combine with archival video footage (“John gave me a box of old VHS tapes”) to create what Rae hopes is “a tapestry of different material.” “This was really only possible because of the newer post-production technology; I used Final Cut Pro on an Apple Mac,” the former director of the Native American Program for the Sundance Institute admits. But it’s not technology that gives her such perfect control of the narrative, revealing information precisely at the moment when you are subconsciously aching to know what happened next; it’s hours spent behind a camera, learning storytelling from the ground up, and her years working in various capacities on more than a dozen documentary films.

There’s yet another facet to John Trudell’s complex identity: that of actor. In 1992, Redford interviewed him for Incident at Oglala, revealing Trudell’s instinctive camera presence; since then he’s appeared in Thunderheart, Smoke Signals and half a dozen other films, including Randy Redroads’ forthcoming The Space between All Things. Produced by Rae and starring Trudell, Evan Adams and Tantoo Cardinal, among others, The Space Between All Things is slated to begin shooting in 2006—perhaps even in New Mexico. And Trudell continues to be a powerful rhetorician with a gift for the soundbite (“civilization is not good for us”; “Indians are Jesus hanging from the cross”)—a mastery Santa Feans have the opportunity to hear for themselves, as Trudell and Rae will be present at both screenings of Trudell, the first of which is Friday, Aug. 19, kicking off CCA’s weekend-long Native Cinema Showcase. “We’re exhibiting this film under a different paradigm,” Rae notes. “Typically a film opens in LA or NYC and subsequently moves inwards, but in this case we’re releasing in Santa Fe, the heart of Indian country, and moving outward, a nontraditional approach that feels right for this film. The film rights are also shared

collaboratively between different distributors and exhibitioners—to my mind, it’s sovereign filmmaking.”

When asked about her subject and what makes him unique among artists and activists, Rae goes quiet for a moment, then speaks carefully, her voice soft with respect. “They don’t make human beings like John anymore. In an earlier cut of the film, Gary Farmer and Dino Butler both talk about how there used to be ones who did a variety of things, whether they were dreamers or medicine people, people who were pipe carriers and thinkers—those who were truth keepers. More than anything else, I think John is a truth keeper.” He may be, she says, putting his focus on “evolution rather than revolution” now; but John Trudell continues to follow his lines wherever they lead, no matter what the personal cost or gain may be.

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