As a young Santee Sioux, John Trudell helped orchestrate the takeover of the abandoned federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, which lasted from 1969 until 1971. The action coincided with the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM), and Trudell emerged as one of the movement’s most effective spokespeople.
Those days were harrowing, a time when outspoken AIM warriors suffered vicious harassment at the hands of the federal government. Trudell’s path of activism on behalf of Native rights eventually resulted in the arson murder of his family, an event left uninvestigated by the FBI, despite its clear jurisdiction under the Major Crimes Act.
He drifted in grief for awhile, then rediscovered his voice as a spoken-word artist, beginning with the release of his first album, Tribal Voice. Trudell also found success as a film actor with roles in Thunderheart and Smoke Signals. His most CD Bone Days has garnered considerable acclaim, and High Times saw fit to bestow the Conscious Artist of the Year award upon him for his work over the past two decades. His voice has lost none of its power.
A few years ago, you were asked about your AIM days, and you said, “That was a different me.”
A different me? I wonder which me said that. When we’re infants, we’re infants. When we’re crawlers, we’re crawlers. And when we’re young people, we’re young people. AIM was a very crucial part of my learning experience, my life test. Things happen in life, and I headed in another direction with writing and things.
AIM celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year. How do you look back on those times?
The political entity woke people up. It added fire to a dwindling spirit. It put the fire back into life for Native people. We became more spiritually attuned to who we were. That’s the most enduring fire, the most important fire. That’s what I see truly as the result of the political movements.
We have some sovereignty issues where we prevail, but in reality we’re still colonized people. There’s someone we have to ask. But it’s interesting that a political movement is what helped to rekindle and reflame a spiritual reality. With the rekindling of the spirit, a cultural, artistic consciousness evolved. Only through our culture and our art can we express our realities, our truths, our distortions—not through someone else’s politics. I see that happening more and more, whether it’s the Lakota Hemp Project in Pine Ridge, South Dakota or whether it’s the emergence of all these new Native artists. I think that our strongest voices emerge from a spiritual base.
During the ’70s, the FBI was alarmed about your ability to rouse people. Peter Matthiessen describes you in his book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse as “an incendiary talker.”
When I wanted to see my file under the Freedom of Information Act, we got back this notice that said there are something like seventeen thousand pages, but I can only have like thirty-two. Certain things were said about me that I know weren’t true, and I know they knew they weren’t true. But you’ve got one agent submitting information here, and another one submitting information over there, and they build a profile on you.
There was a little accuracy—yeah, I lived here at such and such a place. They were very aware of where my family lived and places that I went to, to some degree. But other things—that I was believed to be connected to the Puerto Rican Socialist party, or believed to have moved guns, that I was connected to the Wounded Knee occupation in 1973, even though I wasn’t there—they created a fiction.
I know I’m not an economic threat or a military threat. I’m just me. I know me. I know what I’m capable of and what I’m not capable of. And I know they know that about me, too. I can grab onto moments of coherence. Maybe I have an ability at times to communicate with people. Some may look at it as rousing people. I’ve never seen it that way.
Are you still a part of AIM?
I’m a part of AIM, but as far as any organizational efforts are concerned, I don’t have a clue what’s going on. I know different AIM people who are still working, and the various issues.
When you’re in organizations, especially in political organizations, what you say is a factor. Whatever I have to say, I’ll take responsibility for. I don’t want to deal with people telling me that I can’t say it or think it. I’ll just take the heat for what I do.
What’s the biggest misperception about Native Americans?
We’re not Native Americans, man. It would be nice to have more accuracy. We’re the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere. Go back to AIM: That name came about because we were called American Indians. Then we went out and protested and raised hell, and pretty soon, they were calling us Native Americans.
Your white citizen, black citizen, Asian citizen, all your citizen-Americans who do not come from here—they are your fucking Native Americans.
I have an ancestor that I consider to be direct linkage who lived seven hundred years ago, who never heard the word American and never heard the word Indian. Those sounds were never heard in this hemisphere, those noises had never been made. So how can I be a Native American or an American Indian?
Do you worry for the upcoming generations of Native people?
We have to understand that we’ve been through a hard ride, and it’s going to get harder before it gets better. But because we have endured this long and reached this point in our evolution, we have shown that we have the ability to ride this hard ride. We can ride the ride as long as we must.
You’re trying to get All Tribes Foundation off the ground. What’s that?
It’s an evolving entity. It’s very important to keep the concept of the tribe alive, because the tribe is the core of the nation, the heart of the nation.
At some point we would create a physical structure that would house a performance space, library space, a space for audio-visual literature. We don’t want to duplicate what someone else is doing. We want to be influenced by it. We want to create this information that everyone on the planet is a descendant of a tribe.
Angelina Jolie has taken an interest in your work.
I really like her. She was the executive producer of Bone Days, my most recent CD. She gave me the money to do it. It just turned out that during the course of all of this, the concept of All Tribes Foundation emerged.
I think she’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. She’s good to look at and she’s really talented and all, but she knows how to live life, how to experience it. The reality is I wouldn’t have hooked up with her, no matter what I want, if there wasn’t a basic trust of her intelligence. That’s the deciding factor always. Do they make sense to me?
I respect her. She’s accomplished. She’s a young woman, 27 years old, and here she is, one of the goddesses of the planet. She has vitality. I talk about accessing that living memory of the tribe—she’s carrying that memory.
Explain what you mean by the “living memory of the tribe.”
Every human being is the descendant of a tribe. Every human carries encoded in their DNA that memory. The DNA, the bone, flesh, and blood of the human being, is made up of the metals, minerals and liquids of the Earth. We are shapes of the Earth. All things of the Earth are made up of the same things, just differently. Our being comes from our relationship to the sun and the universe. That relationship is part of the spiritual understanding of life.
We have to keep that living memory of the tribe—not to glorify it or glamorize it. Because we are a spiritual people, we are responsible. We carry different aspects of it. If everybody carries it and seeks to develop it, we can keep it alive. As fragmented as it is, the whole is there.
I don’t know if we really remember that we are human beings. As we exist in this society as the oppressor and the oppressed, we’re all aware of the mining systems. We know there is a system where you take uranium, the stone, out of the ground, and put it through a refining process and convert the spirit of that uranium into a form of energy to run this electrical world. We know they can do it with fossil fuel, and we know they can do it with trees. As human beings, I think we’re put through a refining process which involves mining our perception of reality.
However one perceives our Creator, we were given intelligence—what we were given to be able to maintain a balance in the evolutionary reality. If human beings use it clearly and coherently, they can maintain their participation in the evolutionary reality. If they don’t, then they can evolve themselves out of it. Our ancestors had understanding of that. They understood that we lived in a spiritual reality and to be free, one must be responsible. So life is about spirituality, life is about responsibility.
How does this differ from religion?
I’ve been trying to figure out when religion—the word, the idea, the concept, the action—emerged in our reality. Somewhere another perception appeared, another consciousness based upon a human-form Creator and the idea of one God and his spreaders. One may perceive Him differently, but in the end one must be subservient and obedient to Him. And in one’s subservience and obedience, you can just fucking do anything you damn well please. You can kill, rob—anything, as long as it’s His will. Human beings have been turned into citizens and have been programmed to relate a moral loyalty to one of the names of God. Sometimes the loyalty causes the human being to accept what’s wrong. They act out of loyalty, because they’ve been programmed not to question. Then it’s dangerous.
So how does one correct one’s perception of reality?
It has to happen individually in order to become collective. It has to happen through our intelligence. Our defense is our intelligence—what we were given when we were put here—which does not make us defenseless. But the intelligence has been manipulated for two or three thousand years to create behavior that has resulted in complete genocide against the Earth.
You have a great gift for expressing yourself. How did that evolve into music?
My wife and kids were killed up in Nevada in February of 1979—murdered. That’s when I made the transition from a political-activist reality. I went into a haze that lasted for years. But I started to write. I was given some help when I really needed it, and it showed up in the form of writing. It was my own therapy. I had been driven out of the Native community and I knew I couldn’t go back in. But I needed to find a way back again.
What do you mean, “driven out of the Native community?”
You’ve got six people murdered and the government blatantly covers it up. Nobody paid any attention to it—chairman of AIM or not. I came to the realization that I couldn’t live with the Indians anymore. It wasn’t safe for them.
But I didn’t want to stay out. I couldn’t physically participate in the community the way that it was before. When I made the decision to start making the music, the idea was that this work would be my leaflets. But these leaflets, people keep. If they get it, they keep it. By ’82, I had made the decision to go where the lines take me. I had met Jackson Browne, so I had access to the world of music and recording studios. We went into a studio in L.A. and created Tribal Voice. Jackson basically produced it, mixed it, did everything for that album.
I was looking for someone to do music, because in Tribal Voice it was just me doing the voice over tribal songs. In ’85, I met Jesse Ed Davis. He was living in a halfway house dealing with things, and he heard Tribal Voice. This Kiowa Indian man shows up and says he can make music for my words, and he did. He put music to the words and made songs. Jesse only lived three more years after I met him, but in the course of that time he literally gave me music, gave me a band, put me onstage, and experienced me. Sometimes allies just show up in your life.
You were given a Doobie Award as Conscious Artist of the Year. Was this a surprise?
I’m overwhelmed by it. It’s a way of telling me truly that hey, I’m not alone.
All of this stuff came out my own internal desperation, so to have it come out coherent is something. But I guarantee you the source of it was turmoil and desperation.
How do you view the ongoing debate over cannabis?
I was thinking about this during the medical-marijuana initiatives and the success they had in California with Prop 215. The medical-marijuana campaign made me start thinking about hemp in general. It’s Earth medicine. Because when you look at the reality of it, hemp doesn’t harm the soil; it’s truly a renewable resource; and harms the environment in no way. And it provides for the environment of the human being. It provides everything one would need—clothing, shelter, food, energy.
Hemp should be truly approached as an Earth medicine. As far as smoking it is concerned, if it makes us feel good and it’s not hurting anybody, then that’s right. If hemp makes the Earth feel good, then it’s the right thing to do. This petrochemical attack against the Earth is what’s going to compel the human being back to using intelligence, to participate in the evolutionary reality. The dominant petrochemical reality now is a sure sign that collectively, the human being is not using its intelligence in a way to continue to be able to play in the evolutionary reality.
That’s the ride, in the individual life and the collective life. And in some way, this petrochemical reality and the dominators of it don’t want us to understand that life truly is about responsibility. Responsibility is to be free. It’s not about subservience. If we use our intelligence as responsibly as we can, then we begin to perceive reality from the perspective of our responsibilities. Because in the end, everyone is responsible for what they do, and we can blame no one. As basic as it gets, I’m responsible for what I do. No one makes me do things. Anybody can be pushed or provoked in any kind of way, but when I make the decision to do what I do, I make that decision.
Where do you think life is taking you?
For me, it’s the work. Sometimes the work is there, sometimes it’s not. I have no major complaints about where things are going. We’re working fairly regularly. I enjoy live performance the most. That’s the free time, so I try to do as much of that as I can. Whatever is in front of me, I have learned not to expect. Whatever comes, I try not to let it change my direction.