John Trudell was identified as a poet, a fighter for Native American rights, an agitator, and lots of other things.
But if you were to have asked him which of these descriptions best suits him he would have refused to be pinned down. “Actually I don’t consider myself to be any of those things. They’re things that I do…but they’re parts of me. They’re not the total.” Indeed, Trudell was the complex sum of all that he saw, endured and accomplished in his 69 years, a time in which he experienced more than most people might in several lifetimes.
John Trudell did not set out to be a poet. He never studied poetry in school. He took that road primarily through a series of detours, and his poetic and political sensibilities were forged by the remarkable, and some horrifying circumstances of his life.
John Trudell was born on February 15, 1946 in Omaha, Nebraska, and grew up on and around the nearby Santee Sioux reservation. (His father was a Santee, his mother’s tribal roots were in Mexico.) Trudell became acquainted with hardship at an early age. His mother died when he was 6, and he watched his father struggle to feed and clothe his large family. This experience left Trudell with a deep contempt for the American “work ethic,” compounded by the endemic racial and economic injustice which surrounded him.
In 1963, like so many young people with limited economic opportunities, Trudell found himself in the military. Trudell saw active Navy duty in the coastal waters off Vietnam, on a ship doing search-and-rescue missions for downed pilots. What combat he saw was from a distance. But Trudell’s heritage sensitized him to the racism he saw during the war, whether by Americans toward Asians, or the U.S. military toward its own minority troops.
Trudell left the Navy after four years. A résumé he put together for a press kit a few years ago contains the following listing:
1967 – 1969: Jobs, School, Disillusionment
Among the illusions Trudell quickly abandoned was that military service was a way of buying into the American dream. He then had a series of unsatisfying educational experiences. “I was in a holding pattern,” he said, until 1969, when his sense of indigenous roots and connections was galvanized by the Indians of All Tribes Occupation of Alcatraz Island. That event, for which Trudell acted as national spokesman, was the first time that the plight of Native Americans was brought into mainstream American consciousness. And along with the recognition of the media came the attention of the U.S. government, particularly that of the F.B.I.
The occupation of Alcatraz Island eventually wound down, ending in 1971. But something more lasting was poised to replace it: the American Indian Movement, of which Trudell served as National Chairman from 1973 to 1979. The government response to A.I.M. was swift: Trudell bluntly states, “They waged war against us. They hunted us down. They killed, jailed, destroyed, by any means necessary. They saw that magical thing that happened with Alcatraz…all of a sudden all this spirit is popping up and gaining momentum through A.I.M., and this is why the spirit-hunters, those who hunt free thought, came after us.” A 17,000 page F.B.I. file bearing Trudell’s name remains a testament to his years under government scrutiny.
In 1979 that war took a terrible personal toll on John Trudell, in the form of an unspeakable tragedy that changed his life forever.
On February 11, 1979 Trudell had burned an American flag during a demonstration in front of the J.Edgar Hoover building, the headquarters of the F.B.I. In Washington, DC, Trudell explained his motives for the flag-burning. “In the military, they said if the flag has been desecrated, the only way to properly dispose of it is to burn it. But they defined desecration of the flag as if it drops on the earth. I say injustice and racism and classism and your whole way of life desecrates whatever you say this thing’s supposed to mean.” About 12 hours after the flag incident, in the early morning of February 12, 1979 a fire “of suspicious origin” burned down Trudell’s home on the Shoshone Palute reservation in Nevada, killing Trudell’s wife, Tina, their three children and Tina’s mother. Not surprisingly, the F.B.I. declined to investigate, and the blaze was officially ruled an “accident.” But Trudell flatly stated “It was murder; they were murdered as an act of war.”
Devastated by the tragedy, Trudell withdrew from the world for a time, and it was during this period of grief and exile that Trudell discovered his poetic gift. “It was when I was looking for something to hang on to, to keep me connected to this reality, that I started writing. I did not write poetry prior to that…Tina was the writer. She wrote poetry. And almost six months after the fire, when I was looking for help — I was looking to cut any spiritual deal. I was pissed off at God, at the Great Spirit, at all of ’em because this was a betrayal to me… And then the lines came. The lines were my bombs, my explosions, my tears, they were my everything.”
What began as a form of therapy soon turned into much more: the words poured out of Trudell, and he began to incorporate poetry into his speaking engagements.
In 1982 he published a book of poems, Living in Reality. But he was searching for a new mode of presentation and soon he became inspired, in part, by someone who was to become his close friend, Jackson Browne. “In 1979 I met Jackson. He allowed me to roam around in his world, so I was around recording studios, and musicians. And I’ve always like rock ‘n’ roll anyway. I just considered it to be a period of osmosis. By ’82 I had decided that I wanted to try to record the poetry with music, but I didn’t know how I was going to work with contemporary musicians. So I began by putting the poetry with the oldest musical form. For us, that meant the drum and the chants. We ended up recording a tape called TRIBAL VOICE at Jackson’s studio. And when that was recorded, I wanted to then mix the spoken word with the latest musical forms…synthesizers, electric guitars, drum machines. I stayed on hold with that one for two years because it was very hard for me to find someone who would work with me on the music. To me it was important that it remain spoken word. I wanted to mix those two identities, music and poetry. I wanted those two identities to be distinct, yet together.
“Then I met Jesse Ed Davis on May Day, 1985,”
Jesse Ed Davis, himself a Kiowa from Oklahoma, was something of a musical legend, having recorded and toured with the likes of Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, all of the former Beatles and countless others. His innate understanding of blues and rock ‘n’ roll turned out to be just what Trudell had been looking for. He remembers that first meeting fondly: “He told me his name. And the very next thing he said to me was, ‘I can make music for your words.'”
Together, Trudell and Davis started gigging and recording as The Graffiti Band, and this partnership produced its first album titled AKA GRAFITTI MAN, in 1986. It was released on Trudell’s own Peach Company label in a cassette-only format, and sold through mail-order and at the band’s shows. Even with this limited distraction, the album attracted considerable attention and critical praise, including supporters like Bob Dylan. In an interview in Rolling Stone, Dylan called AKA GRAFITTI MAN “the best album of 1986,” and had the album played over the P.A. system during intermissions in his 1987 tour. Among Trudell’s other fans is Kris Kristofferson, who wrote the song “Johnny Lobo” as a tribute to his remarkable life.
Trudell and Jesse Ed Davis recorded a second album together, HEART JUMP BOUQUET. Following Davis’ untimely death in 1988, Trudell began to collaborate with Mark Shark, who had been the rhythm guitarist in the Graffiti Band. With Shark as co-writer, Trudell and the Graffiti Band recorded a third album, FABLES AND OTHER REALITIES (a second in the “Tribal Voice” series, titled …BUT THIS ISN’T EL SALVADOR, had been released in 1987). The band toured in 1988 as an opening act for the Australian rock band Midnight Oil.
In 1992, Rykodisc released AKA GRAFITTI MAN to an international audience for the first time.
The release gathered work from all of Trudell’s albums (except the first TRIBAL VOICE recording), covering a period from 1985 to 1991. The original recordings were remixed and overdubs added (including guest vocals by Browne and Kristofferson), but the essence of the work remained intact, particularly in the searing guitar work of Jesse Ed Davis.
This work represents a broader spectrum of Trudell’s concern from the most global to the most personal. His keen poetic eye and ear touch on the Persian Gulf war in “Bombs Over Bagdad,” in which he refers to George Bush as “Queen George.” “The line was originally “King George’s war,” he explained, “but that’s not what’s going on…he’s trying to prove his machismo.” Another famous American is the subject of much more sympathetic treatment in “Baby Boom Che.” Elvis Presley, who, as the song title suggests, Trudell considered a cultural revolutionary. “Yeah,” he laughs, “Elvis liberated a lot of white people from Lawrence Welk!” The album’s other tracks cover the vast range of the poet’s social and personal concerns — incisive song-poems contain images of the decaying American dream (as on “Graffiti Man”), but also loving remembrances of Trudell’s wife (“Tina Smiled”). The album is infused throughout with Trudell’s deep belief in the human spirit, and the spirit of the Earth itself.
At the time of AKA GRAFITTI MAN’s release, Trudell’s visibility was increasing in other media as well. He was interviewed at length in the Michael Apted film “Incident at Oglala,” a documentary about Native American prisoner of conscience Leonard Peltier and the American Indian Movement. He also had a featured role in the Tribeca Films release “Thunderheart,” starring Val Kilmer and Sam Shephard, also directed by Apted, released in April 1992.
Trudell went on to release several more records:
1994 Johnny Damas & Me
1999 Blue Indians
2001 Descendant Now Ancestor
2001 Bone Days (produced by the actress Angelina Jolie)
2003 The Collection
2005 Live à Fip
2007 Madness & The Moremes (double album)
2010 Crazier Than Hell
2014 Through The Dust (feat. Kwest)
2015 Wazi’s Dream (feat. Bad Dog: Quiltman, Mark Shark, Billy Watts, Ricky Eckstein)
Once John Trudell was asked about events surrounding the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America. He replied, “Columbus was lost. He didn’t have an idea what planet he was on, he didn’t have a clue where he was at. And then I think of the descendants of Columbus..they’re lost too. They don’t know where their lives are going. There’s a way to live and a way to exist. We’re here so we should be living, rather than just existing. That’s what Alcatraz and the A.I.M. were all about. We call it sovereignty, honoring treaties, but it really has to do with life.”
As an artist, as an activist, as a human being, John Trudell demands to live.
WHAT OTHERS SAY ABOUT JOHN TRUDELL
“The triumph of John Trudell is that he has been able to bring the strength of a brilliant activist into the arena of the arts — tender, intact, but still on fire.”
— Buffy Sainte-Marie, Interview
“More than any man I know, John Trudell’s life is the expression of his beliefs. Most of us muddle through the day with our ideals in tow, but John’s politics, art and way of life perfectly reflect his passion and energy for the Native American cause. He was an inspiration to me in making the documentary film “Incident at Oglala,” about Leonard Peltier’s fight for justice, so much so that I cast him as the charismatic Indian leader in “Thunderheart,” a movie that deals with the government oppression of the contemporary Native American. There wasn’t an untruthful moment in his performance. ‘Sometimes they have to kill us,” he sold me, ‘because they cannot break our spirit.’ John is one of those rare unbreakable spirits.”
— Michael Apted, Director
“A former AIM leader who suffered tragically for his commitment to justice for his people, Trudell, in just a few appearances, charges the film [THUNDERHEART] with authenticity and passion.”
— Peter Keough, Boston Phoenix
“Probably the most charismatic speaker I’ve ever heard.”
— Bonnie Raitt
“AKA GRAFITTI MAN is the best album of 1986. Only people like Lou Reed and John Doe can dream about doing work like this.”
— Bob Dylan
“John Trudell is a crazy long wolf, poet, prophet, preacher, warrior full of pain and fun and laughter and love, spilling out a vision of fable and truth, love and war, from the unique and somewhat desperate point of view of the Wild American. He’s a reality check. No paranoid; he’s aware of the Enemy (a formidable Predator with no respect for any form of life). Justice is a fire that burns inside him. His spirit cries out for it. It makes him dangerous.”
— Kris Kristofferson
“The passing of John Trudell comes as such sad news. I’d known of John ever since his work with my guitar player friend Jesse Ed Davis and their group AKA Grafitti Man. His poetry, the sound of his voice, was so powerful. I knew of his activism as the spokesperson for the United Indians Of All Tribes takeover of Alcatraz and his leadership in the American Indian Movement. John and I worked together several times over the years, and each time I grew to admire him more. His acting in film was terrific. His music was outstanding. His prose and poetry were beautiful. And more than anything he was a solid stand-up guy. I cherished his friendship and will miss him deeply.”
— Robbie Robertson
“I’m so sorry to mark the passing of my friend, John Trudell, who was one of the most committed Native American activists and environmentalists, as well as a brilliant spoken word poet. My thoughts are with his family tonight. Rest in peace, dear friend.”
— Bonnie Raitt
“On Jim’s birthday, another great artist passed. John Trudell was (is) a major, shamanic Native American singer/songwriter whom I had the honor to give a Native American Music Award to… he is in the happy hunting ground… blessings…”
— John Densmore