John Trudell: An appreciation

I’m not the spiritual type, though I spent a lot of time with Nick Ashford. The only other person who had that kind of spiritual depth that I knew was John Trudell. As The Indian Country Today Media Network website reported, the “noted activist, poet and Native thinker” on December 8, 2015 left Turtle Island [a name given to North America in some Native American myths] to join the spirit world. The influential Native philosopher touched many throughout Indian country and beyond.”

Indeed.

I didn’t know John well, like I knew Nick. I did speak with him for a Billboard story in 2002 when Bone Days came out, which is when I would have seen him the first time, at The Bottom Line. I saw him some years later at Joe’s Pub, but he was part of a group gig, if I recall. I spoke with him briefly, then, and he couldn’t have been nicer. I don’t know if he remembered me from the Bottom Line show, but he was alone, and knew a lot of other people in the audience and there wasn’t much one-on-one hang time for me.

The Bottom Line gig, though, was way different. He was there with his group Bad Dog–featuring Mark Shark on guitar, and fellow Native American Quiltman, who sang and chanted within the tradition in providing a musical and spiritual context for John’s spoken word poetry.

I guess I have an inherent reverence for Native Americans, at least the myth and legend of the Native American as gleaned rightly and wrongly as a kid from John Wayne and John Ford and Tonto and Saturday morning TV cowboys and Indians, and later The Outlaw Josey Wales and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the American Indian Movement (John was its national chairman), AIM member Leonard Peltier and Thunderheart.

John starred in Thunderheart, largely playing himself, I’m sure.

I understand he wrote the “Freedom Speech” in the pivotal scene where he’s captured and beaten by FBI agents on the South Dakota Sioux reservation where the movie, loosely based on the Wounded Knee incident of 1973, is set.

Some 200 Oglala Lakota and AIM followers had occupied Wounded Knee, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation–site of the 1890 massacre by the U.S Cavalry of over 300 men, women and children being relocated to the reservation. The occupiers sought the removal of an allegedly corrupt and abusive tribal president, and protested the U.S. government’s failure to live up to treaty obligations.

During a 71-day standoff, a Cherokee and an Oglala Lakota were shot to death, and a civil rights activist disappeared and was presumed to have been murdered. In Thunderheart, John’s character Jimmy Looks Twice, an Indian activist who is suspected of murder, was also inspired by Indian activist Leonard Peltier, who remains famously imprisoned for life following a controversial trial and conviction of murdering two FBI agents at Pine Ridge in 1975–after being acquitted of the attempted murder of a Milwaukee cop.

Peltier’s story, incidentally, was the subject of a 1992 documentary, Incident at Oglala, directed by Thunderheart director Michael Apted and including an interview with John, who was himself the subject of the 2005 documentary Trudell.

In Thunderheart (also 1992), Jimmy Looks Twice tells sympathetic FBI agent Ray Levoi, himself part Indian (well-played by Val Kilmer), “Sometimes they have to kill us. They have to kill us, because they can’t break our spirit. We choose the right to be who we are. We know the difference between the reality of freedom and the illusion of freedom. There is a way to live with the earth and a way not to live with the earth. We choose the way of earth. It’s about power, Ray.”

The lines–and John’s portrayal–deeply affected me, as did the rest of his history. According to the Los Angeles Times obit, he had a 17,000-page FBI dossier: “He’s extremely eloquent,” one FBI memo read, “therefore extremely dangerous.”

In 1979, while John was demonstrating in Washington, D.C., his pregnant wife, three children and mother-in-law perished in a fire at her parents’ home on Nevada’s Duck Valley Indian Reservation–hours after John burned an American flag at the FBI building. The cause of the fire was never determined, but John and others suspected the government.

“One world ended abruptly and completely and could not be resurrected or re-put together,” he later told the Times. It was then that he began to write, and his poetry was promoted by the likes of Kilmer, Bob Dylan, Robert Redford (who compared him to the Dalai Lama), Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt. The Times said that he considered poetry to be first among the arts, and quoted him thusly: “When one lives in a society where people can no longer rely on the institutions to tell them the truth, the truth must come from culture and art.”

Brown produced John’s 1992 remake of his acclaimed 1986 album AKA Graffitti Man with late Kiowa guitarist/songwriter Jesse Ed Davis, having previously help him record the 1983 album Tribal Voice with Quiltman.

“I started with Quiltman to put spoken word with the oldest musical form–Native American music–and he was willing to go for it, though we had no experience,” John told me when I interviewed him. “Then I wanted to put it with the newest musical form–electric guitar–and I met Jesse Ed Davis and he was the only one who knew what I was talking about.”

After Davis died in 1988, “Mark [Shark] picked up his guitar, so to speak, and carried on. Then Quiltman came in [again] and it was quite an evolution, adjusting traditional Native American songs to where he just makes his own harmonies to go with contemporary songs.”

Naturally, I had jumped at the chance to speak with him when the opportunity arose with Bone Days. As I wrote in Billboard, his intensely delivered recitations, backed by Shark’s ethereal guitars, were given heightened otherworldly power by Quiltman’s chants, giving the album its own extraordinary power.

“Because the whole point,” he told me, “is to take from our native culture and from contemporary culture without using one artform to mimic the other so that our native identity remains the native identity, the contemporary identity remains the contemporary identity, and the mixing of these two musical identities creates a third musical identity.”

Then he laughed.

“In my mind, at least, that’s how it plays,” he said. “But I don’t know about the rest of the world.”

When I walked into the dressing room before the Bottom Line show, though, it wasn’t like Joe’s Pub.

Unlike our phone conversation, John was stone sober in demeanor, intimidating behind his sunglasses.

I don’t recall much of what was said. I’m sure I introduced myself as the guy from Billboard who interviewed him, which he would have remembered. I’m sure I mentioned Thunderheart during the phoner, and if I hadn’t brought up his small role in Steven Seagall’s 1994 Alaskan environmental action film On Daedly Ground, I did then. And we most certainly talked Native American and White American politics.

I presume it was a pipe, for I distinctly remember the words “peace pipe” being uttered, but I can’t imagine by me. But someone proffered a pipe or joint and everything loosened up and by the time I went to my seat I was in proper mind to experience live the poetic visions of which John spoke, that he related with his music. By the way, in 2012, John and Willie Nelson co-founded Hempstead Project Heart, which calls for the legal cultivation of hemp for clothing, biofuel and food.

About the only other contact I had with John was indirect, through another modern day saint, Kris Kristofferson. Kris wrote “Johnny Lobo” about John, about “a warrior fighting for his people and his soul” who like John had served during Vietnam (John was in the Navy, on a destroyer off Vietnam):

Loaded down with lessons that he carried
Home from Viet Nam to Wounded Knee
Johnny Lobo burned a flag he knew had been dishonored
Paid the price for thinking he was free
Someone set his house on fire, burned it to the ground
With his wife and children locked inside
Later when the bitter tears were falling to the ashes
Something good in Johnny Lobo died.

But something good in John Trudell also lived. And even though I never spent a lot of time with him, I remained so moved by him that I was stunned and broken by his death. And I was hardly alone.

I called his longtime assistant Faye Brown a few days after, and she still could barely talk. John’s family released this statement: “We know all the people who love John want to know about plans and how to pay their respects. John left clear instructions for his passage and for what he wanted to happen after he crossed over. He did not want a funeral or any kind of single gathering. He also did not want his family to write a standard style obituary or ‘toot his horn.’ He didn’t want to tell people how to remember him. His wishes are for people to celebrate life and love, pray and remember him in their own ways in their own communities.”

“With love for all,” the family closed.

His close friend Kevin Marsh, who held him in his arms lovingly as he “passed through to the other side,” related John’s final moments.

“John was extremely ill,” wrote Marsh. “Cancer is the worst, plain and simple. But he was good with what was happening to him, the transitioning from this world to the next.”

He continued: “John was at peace, such a total, calming peace befitting a warrior of his caliber. It was stunning is what it was. The sparkle in his eyes never left him–it never went away ever. No glazing over like most folks when they leave. Not John. The sparkle never left his eyes.”

After his eldest daughter came in and said, “Hey, Trudell! How ya doing?,” John looked up and said, “I’m good.” And that was it.

And then Marsh added, “We do not stop because John is not on this earth because we still are and the work is not even close to complete. The next generation of Trudell’s are primed to take up where their father left off. All the non-profits that would always table at John’s gigs still need a place to go to get the word out and plans are in the works to keep the work very very much alive and moving forward–together.”

He concluded: “And remember, ‘John’s good.’ He said so.”

Here’s John’s “Stone People,” from his last album, “Wazi’s Dream”:

Death is a ghost where there is no death
Death is a death where life forgets to live.

2 thoughts on “John Trudell: An appreciation

  • December 24, 2015 at 1:43 pm
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    Bessman,
    For anyone who didn’t know who John was this column does the job.
    It illuminates who he was as a person, as an artist, as a warrior against tyranny. Beautifully written. Merry Christmas!!

  • December 24, 2015 at 1:57 pm
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    Thanks, Russ, always.

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