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Striding in a Storm of Words
John Trudell at The Colony in Woodstock
Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Story by Gary Alexander

With a poet's tongue that cuts to the heart, John Trudell occupies a unique position in contemporary music. Stress that word unique.

A charismatic speaker, a political activist who led the American Indian Movement [AIM] in the turbulent 1970's as its National Chairman, Trudell is able to put aside politics as if it was a tool to be used- as words are the tools of ideas- and the words have been spoken but the ideas remain.

Asked if he saw himself as a poet or songwriter, Trudell answered from Los Angeles by phone; "Neither one... but those are things that I do...In the beginning, the poetry wasn't written for music. It was just written. But now, I would say, there are some things I write knowing I want them to be songs."

With all of the qualifications of a living legend, Trudell has found that being Trudell can involve a multitude of actions and involvements. Singer/actor Kris Kristoferson describes Trudell as "...a crazy lone wolf, poet, prophet, preacher, warrior full of pain and fun and laughter and love...He is a reality check...." Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone magazine in 1986 that Trudell's A.K.A. Graffiti Man was the best album of the year.

Raised in and around the Santee Sioux reservation near Omaha, Nebraska, Trudell speaks with authority about the Native American circumstances of today but more, in his music and poetry, Trudell speaks eloquently of the human circumstance; of matters of the heart and spirit. He does so hypnotically, compellingly and, with his razor-sharp band Bad Dog, rousingly.

Trudell's performances evolved into a delicious fusion of traditional Native music and rock when he met Jackson Browne, who produced some of Trudell's earlier work. A teaming with famed guitarist Jesse Ed Davis brought further focus to Trudell's poetry and art. His talents were also tapped for roles in feature films, including Thunderheart, Smoke Signals, On Deadly Ground, Pow-Wow Highway and the acclaimed documentary Incident at Oglala. Trudell's latest CD, Bone Days [Daemon Records], was sponsored by actress Angelina Jolie and distributed through a label founded by Indigo Girl Amy Ray.

The eleventh entry in his discography, Bone Days offers textures more temperate than Graffiti Man , more laid back but every bit as churning; toned and streaked with Mark Shark's electric, slide and 12 string guitars set robustly and cloyingly into the stream. Shark even advances a bit of electric sitar in "Lucky Motel" and octave mandolin in "Doesn't Hurt Anymore" while Billy Watts and Ricky Eckstein kick in pace and flavor. Trudell's voice is a cool and smoothly flowing trickle over mossy stone haunted by drifts of chant riding along like glimpses of horizon through the trees.

A notoriously behaviorized Babylon "building to the new world order" is seen "in the mask of 'everything's normal'" as "we're expected to carry the stone" for "emperors and the feeding class." Dryly, Trudell observes in "Carry the Stone" that "the more evil the empire, the more paranoid the society."

In "Undercurrent," Trudell describes "a way heat breathes" in wordless rivers of sexual energy which pass messages between potential lovers regardless of the circumstances, reminding us of natural physical identities to be acknowledged within even when suppressed without. In "Takes My Breath," sensualities are restirred with "The scent of lightning/ The sweet and the hot/ In full woman bloom/ She loves me, the way/ A woman loves/ When a woman loves..."

Many of you may not have heard of John Trudell simply because many of his messages relate to subjects which the huge corporations that control most of the recording industry and almost all of the broadcasting stations would not care to have you thinking about. If, for example, you had been fully aware of the implications of multinational corporations buying up your air from the government in the 1990s (and continuing today), you might have wondered 'how can these people sell the air to private companies?' and perhaps the Telecommunications Act of 1996 might not have had such an easy time sliding through Congress. [see footnote]

In "Crazy Horse," Trudell provides us with a Native American perspective which situates our life-giving environment in a place of profound and rational respect;

    One earth one mother
    One does not sell the earth
    The people walk upon
    We are the land
    How do we sell our mother
    How do we sell the stars
    How do we sell the air

In recent decades, we have learned enough about the prehistory of Europe from such scholars as Marija Gimbutas and others to realize that before it was overridden by the warloving Kurgan culture from the East, Old Europe shared an earth-revering attitude with Native Americans.

"I reject the assumption that civilization refers only to androcratic warrior societies," Gimbutas wrote. "The generative basis of any civilization lies in its degree of artistic creation, aesthetic achievements, nonmaterial values, and freedom which make life meaningful and enjoyable for all its citizens, as well as a balance of powers between the sexes. Neolithic Europe was... a true civilization in the best meaning of the word."

The invading ideology, observes Richard Rudgley in Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age was "based on patriarchy, hierarchy and military prowess. Their pantheon of gods was male-dominated and headed by a sky god. The Earth Goddess and other female deities were, under the new order, reduced in status to become merely the wives of the gods. Sexual inequality, militaristic violence, dualistic thinking and a fundamental belief in linear continuity (all features integral to our own civilization) are found in Kurgan culture and amongst the later Indo-Europeans. The Stone Age philosophy of Old Europe, with its emphasis on cyclic time and holistic social and ecological thinking, was pushed aside as the new ideology gained ascendancy. The beliefs of Old Europe survived as an undercurrent but the foundations of a new and savage civilization were beginning to be built."

Just such passages spring to mind in discussing September 11, 2001 with John Trudell. He mentions "a war between gods."

"War is about terrorism," Trudell said. "This is our land and our country. Now it's just our land but not our country. How did that happen?"

There will undoubtedly be observations of the anniversary of September 11 even as mainstream media shuts out the voice of families of the victims of that day. (Even C-Span ignored the National Press Club meeting in which they spoke out in June. See Unansweredquestions.org) But we were not compelled to commemorate Pearl Harbor Day and the Native American scarcely has cause to celebrate the European-Kurgan invasion marked by Columbus Day. Trudell, in an interview with Brooke Shelby Biggs for Alternet.org, does have cause to echo humorist-activist Dick Gregory's bemusement at the "discovery" of an already occupied country.

"If we have international structures that infringe on the sovereignty of nations, you also have, within those nations, an inhibition of the sovereignty of individuals," Trudell told Biggs. "Of course, this is nothing new for the Indians. The American masses are becoming the new Indians. I've been here before."

As, indeed, he has... And his vision, his human compassion, are something with which each of us can identify. But not to the point with which corporate think tanks are twisting a stealth campaign of "political correctness" against the individuality of the culture as one stage toward divesting Native Americans of their special sovereignty. The Native American does represent a separate and unique position in the history of this land which should not be melted down by federal efforts to make the Indian Nations like every other group in the population and thus unentitled to special honors and position. We still have much to learn and abide by in their culture and their comprehensions of the world and Trudell blesses us with his glimpses into another way of seeing...

John Trudell began his potent performances as a way of gathering himself in the wake of a devastating tragedy. Falling back on the oral tradition of voice and drum in Native American culture and art, Trudell's lines became his "bombs," his "explosions," his "tears," focusing his continued struggle.

After a stint in Vietnam with the U.S. Navy and dropping out of college, Trudell participated in the Indians of All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969 to 1971 and became increasingly active in the Native American movement against injustice. He painted Plymouth Rock red. He led protests. Less than 12 hours after he staged a demonstration at the FBI building in Washington, D.C. in February of 1979, Trudell's wife Tina, who was campaigning to preserve tribal water rights at Wild Horse Reservoir in Elko County, Nevada, his three children, Ricarda Star [age five], Sunshine Karma [three], and Eli Changin Sun [one] and his wife's mother, Leah Hicks-Manning, were burned to death in a still-unsolved arson.

"AIM is still here," Trudell notes with measured tones of the organization he left in 1979. "But it's autonomous groups- no longer a national entity. The government threw everything they had at us, so it wasn't a matter of coopting us. 'Coopt' would mean we'd still be around, kissing their ass. They just destroyed us. It's not some theoretical thing you read about. They kill people. They imprison people. There were drive-by shootings. All the things that go on with gangs in this country. They did that to us. They committed acts of murder. They unleashed the army on us. They unleashed the national federal police on us. It was a war of annihilation against our political entity. So, they destroyed the national organization of AIM as it existed but AIM itself re-emerged as local autonomous groups and a whole artistic, cultural renaissance coming out of the larger community."

Certainly, Trudell's own contributions to the culture are vigorous and involving but he acts as an individual and is quick to point that out.

"I have no affiliations with any organizations or splinter groups," Trudell asserts. "I write songs. I'm connected to my band. That's my 'group'."

Trudell brings his group in for a rare appearance in the Northeast on Tuesday night.

NOTE: As this is written, more air is on the auction block. What does this mean? Well, in a very real sense, it means that an invisible but vital part of our environment is being privatized- gobbled up by a handful of massive multinational corporations.

We exist in the electromagnetic spectrum as much as we exist upon the land and what goes on in that spectrum effects us profoundly in a number of ways too complex to detail here.. {But, if you're curious, for a bit of background on these issues, check out EMRnetwork.org- for starters)... As owners of the airwaves, these corporations can control the music and information in our environment. The Clear Channel Corporation, for instance, issued a list of forbidden songs to their stations in the wake of the 9-11 attacks which included such dangerous thoughts as "love one another" (a line contained in The Youngbloods song of the 60s which they blackballed- "Get Together"- along with many other equally subversive tunes). [see http://www.wired.com/news/business/0,1367,54036,00.html]

I'd wager that Clear Channel doesn't have an abundance of John Trudell songs at the top of the canned play list they command their stations to play.

Meanwhile, the powers-that-be, led by Colin Powell's son Michael (as head of the Federal Communications Commission), are pushing hard for a grid of electromagnetic pollution in those parts of the spectrum slated for HDTV (High Definition Television- see
etc.) As the signals saturate your home and body, you may not be immediately aware of the microwaves but, on a cellular level, your membranes will vibrate differently. You're part of a great corporate experiment...

It is not a far step from corporate ownership of the airwaves to corporate ownership of fresh water supplies and this has also been an issue in the news...News, that is, for those who seek it out. It was the lead story in Peter Phillips & Project Censored top 25 suppressed stories of the year in the book Censored 2001 [Seven Stories Press]: "World Bank and Multinational Corporations Seek to Privatize Water." It was also the subject of Maude Barlow's excellent investigative book Blue Gold: The Global Water Crisis and the Commodification of the World's Water Supply.

On line, tales of actions to own water worldwide by Monsanto, Bechtel and other corporate raiders can be found at Corpwatch.org and similar watchdog sites. Jim Hightower provides a succinct summary of the situation at http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=13664 and see Carla Binion's piece at Onlinejournal.com which points out that control of water is control of life.

-Gary Alexander

Gary Alexander is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names, he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event; science and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of presumption which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have, Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort to humor.

Posted on August 22, 2002

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