Published in Press (Copenhagen, DK)  1994

John Trudell: Rising from the Ashes

by Bill Chaisson

In the morning I pilot my rented Chevrolet Corsica down to Santa Monica beach.  A homeless person is sprawled on the sand.  Layers of dark, tattered clothing make the body almost indistinguishable from the rafts of kelp washed up along the shore.  It is the day after Thanksgiving 1993 in southern California and warm enough to sleep on the beach all night.  As I often do, I wonder what this place was like when only the Indians lived here.

The low November sun lights up the Santa Monica Mountains to the north.  Square miles of land and hundreds of houses in these mountains were reduced to smoking ash by wildfires just weeks ago.  Santa Ana winds howled down to the sea driving the flames over the land at horrifying speeds.  This morning's television news told me that there is a Red Flag Alert in effect:  a fire warning.  The slopes are still speckled with houses glued like swallow's nests to the steep eroded ridges. The browns and greens of the canyoned slopes are blurred behind a bright veil of yellow smog.  Today the winds are blowing again and the humidity is low.  The public is warned to use caution when they smoke cigarettes and not to use power tools that throw sparks.  John Trudell and I are going up into the Santa Monica Mountains to have his picture taken.

Trudell arrives exactly on time.  I am sitting outside of the hotel wondering what the heck has happened to the photographer who was supposed to arrive early, when a black Nissan Maxima, still doing about 35 mph, pulls into the parking space in front of me.  I have seen Trudell in three movies, his publicity photographs and on his album cover.  He looks like himself:  brown hair hanging down past his shoulders, black shirt hanging unbuttoned over a white t-shirt, black jeans over black cowboy boots.  If the Allman Brothers had been from Greenwich Village, they would have dressed like this.  Aldo Mauro, the photographer, pulls up on his motorcycle as we get Trudell's car parked off of the street.  The three of us pile into my Corsica and, with Trudell giving me directions from the passenger seat and Aldo affirming them from the back seat, we steer my mattress-on-wheels toward the Pacific Coast Highway.


When I was growing up on Long Island in the 1960s the Indians were a thing of the past, remembered only in the more lyrical names of stations along the Long Island Railroad:  Ronkonkoma, Hauppauge, Shinnecock, Sagoponack, Amagansett, Montauk.  In November of 1969 a group called "Indians of All Tribes" occupied Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay and held it until June of 1971.  I don't remember hearing about it.  It was not a topic of conversation at our family dinner table.  My brother and I rarely played "cowboys and Indians".  Instead we tried to play "Indians and Indians", but we didn't know where any of the tribes lived or what they might have been fighting about.  We soon went back to recreating the European wars.  We thought we knew what those wars were about.

John Trudell was 17 when he dropped out of high school, left the reservation and went into the Navy, where he was "always in trouble."  He had just joined the Navy when President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963 .  Like most Americans, he remembers where he was when Kennedy was shot.  He was on his way to Tijuana, Mexico from San Diego "to party" when the border was sealed.  The lofty idealism of the "Camelot" presidency had not extended to the Indian reservations and Trudell did not mourn the passing of the glamorous, Harvard-educated squire from Massachusetts.

From an early age Trudell was aware of the dire predicament of his people.  At eight or nine he had decided that he had been born about one hundred years too late to do anything to save the tribes.  Fifteen years later, deep in the heart of the social tumult of the 1960s, he changed his mind.  In early 1970 he became involved with the Indians of All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz. Soon he was their national spokesman.


"Why do you live here?", I ask him as we sit in traffic and I cast my eyes around the whitewashed man-scape to indicate that I mean the whole mess.  "Ha."  It isn't a laugh, but more of a "that-question-again" sound.  "If I'm going to live in a city, I want to live in a real city.  This is a real city."  "I'm from the east," I say, "and to me New York is a real city."  I feel like being provincial.  "Yeah, I like New York," he replies quickly, "but New York is too condensed.  I like it, but ..."  "There's too much over your head everywhere," I offer.  "Yeah.  Around here, everything is close together, but nothing's over it."  I had to admit I had never thought of it that way before and I remember that I am talking to someone from Nebraska, where there is nothing over you but the sky and there are hardly any people around.  This is not an "Indian thing".  This is a Midwestern thing.  My prejudices have more than one dimension.

I ask him about his movies.  He had a cameo in Powwow Highway, in which two young Cheyenne, one a traditionalist and the other an activist, make a rather indirect journey from Montana to Arizona.  Trudell does not play the activist, but a disenchanted Indian who is convinced that the activist has made off with some of the tribe's money.  "That was my screen test," Trudell says.  "We had to find out whether or not the camera liked me."  He smirks when he says this and I guess that he is remembering some jerk trying to charm him with Hollywood jargon.  "I had to see if I could say lines that I wouldn't ordinarily say ... somebody else's words."  He could.  In Michael Apted's 1991 movie Thunderheart, Trudell was given a larger supporting role as an Indian activist on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  More than one critic thought that Trudell nearly stole the film as the wild eyed Jimmie Looks Twice.  He speaks lines like "Sometimes you just have to kill us" with a chilling conviction.  Incident At Oglala is a documentary film by the same director that came out shortly after Thunderheart.  No less a luminary than Robert Redford narrates and John Trudell is interviewed at length.  The movie covers events surrounding the shooting of two FBI agents and the subsequent imprisonment of AIM activist Leonard Peltier.  Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse presents a tremendous amount of evidence indicating that Peltier has been wrongfully accused and did not receive a fair trial.  The book was banned in the United States until last year, when it was reissued with an afterword that supplies yet more evidence that damns the conduct of the U.S. government.


John Trudell is the same age as President Clinton.  He went to Vietnam for four years.  In combat he was a "phone talker":  he communicated word of damage and casualties and other information from one part of the ship to another.  When he left the Navy his veteran's benefits paid for further education and he enrolled in radio, communications and public speaking courses at a community college.  He got involved with the student radio station, writing copy, doing production and "other behind the scenes things", but having acquired the skills he realized that he didn't like the structure that he was working in or its goals.  He dropped out of school.

In November of 1972, just in time for the re-election of the Republican President Richard Nixon, thousands of Indians from all over the country followed "the Trail of Broken Treaties" back to Washington, D.C. and occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building.  I was in the seventh grade and didn't hear about it.  That autumn in a straw poll taken in my social studies class I was one of only two supporters of George McGovern, the liberal Democratic challenger to Nixon and a Senator from South Dakota.  In March of 1973 the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied Wounded Knee, a small town on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and the site in 1890 of the last "military encounter" between the United States government and an Indian nation.  I don't remember the occupation of Wounded Knee.  The Watergate scandal was exposed during the siege and drew the media attention away from it and the trials that followed it.  Transcripts of the Senate hearings to investigate Watergate were published as a paperback book.  I was 14 and it was 1974 when I read the book and found out that the government was corrupt.  Soon after that I read Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee and found out that a lot more than the government was corrupt.


We turn off the Pacific Coast Highway and drive up to a place where the ground drops away into a yawning canyon.  Aldo sets up his equipment while Trudell and I survey the burned landscape.  The fire has leapt around erratically, scorching some areas down to the dirt and leaving small patches undisturbed.  In an orchard on the hillside above us one half of an orange tree is a blackened skeleton and the other half is leafy and laden with fruit.  Aldo offers Trudell a Marlboro and as he lights it Aldo photographs the tatoos on his left hand.  "You always gotta have tobacco in the picture somewhere," Trudell says with a small smile.
I decide to stay out of the way and enjoy the location.  The hills are young, still rising up out of the ocean.  From our vantage point I can see a "bench" in the side of the mountains, where waves once cut into the soft rock.  It is 30 or 40 meters above the present beach.  I walk across the road and pull a piece of the bedrock out of the outcrop.  It breaks apart in my hands revealing black deposits along the fractures.  Oil.  This was once a basin collecting organic matter.  Maybe 30 million years ago.  I am momentarily at peace, exploring Nature, reaching out through time.


After Alcatraz Trudell became a part of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and from 1973 to 1979 he served as national chairman of the organization.  In 1979 an arsonist torched his home on the Shoshone Paiute Reservation in Nevada, killing his wife, three children and mother-in-law.  Personally devastated and afraid that continued political activism on his part was dangerous to the people around him, Trudell left AIM and tried to gather the threads of his frayed life.  He turned to poetry writing as a way to put the pieces back together.

Trudell went to southern California, where he had spent time through the 70s as an AIM organizer.  For two or three years he was "exploding.  My words were my bombs."  He was writing all the time and began including poetry in this speaking engagements, eventually publishing a book of poetry, Living In Reality, in 1981.  In 1979 he met Jackson Browne, a singer-songwriter who was then at the height of his popularity.  Browne gave Trudell access to a recording studio where the poet began to mate his words to music.  Initially Trudell stuck to traditionally inspired drums and chants and issued his cassettes only through mail order and at personal appearances.  After meeting up with guitarist Jesse Ed Davis in 1985 though, Trudell's musical direction changed dramatically.  Trudell, a Santee Sioux, and Davis, a Kiowa from Oklahoma, began to make blues-inflected rock and roll with Davis's muscular guitar moving along the articulated bones of Trudell's verse.  As The Grafitti Band, they released a cassette-only album on Trudell's Peace Company label.  Somehow a tape reached Bob Dylan, who called AKA Grafitti Man "the best album of 1986".  Davis died in 1988 and Trudell carried on with another guitarist, Mark Shark, releasing in 1991 another version of AKA Grafitti Man through Rykodisc.  It is a compilation of tracks from the cassette-only releases with the production up-graded as money and the CD format allowed.


We are back in the car and the engine strains as we climb higher into the hills to find a house where Trudell once house-sat for seven months.  We are going to see how it fared in the fire.  Unexpectedly and unprompted Trudell brings up the hard-core environmentalist stance on the fires:  "These hills need to burn.  It is part of their cycle.  This was inevitable.  Nature has to take it's course."  He is right, of course.  I begin to prattle on about fire prevention forestry policies and seed germination and Trudell says, "Yeah.  All that.  That's what I mean."

Nothing is left of the house but the plumbing and the chimney.  Everything flammable has been incinerated.  Patches of lawn remain.  The eucalyptus trees at the foot of the driveway are untouched.  Trudell walks around the wreckage remembering out loud what a nice house it was.  Aldo is shooting like mad.

On the ride up the Pacific Coast Highway we had been talking about the fact that most of these wildfires had been the result of arson.  This brought up the Los Angeles riots and the fires that had been set across the city following the innocent verdict for the police who beat Rodney King.  Trudell believes that some of the later riot fires were started by "people connected to law enforcement" after the first few fires were set by rioters.  He reasons that it was in the interest of the authorities to make the unrest seem worse than it really was so that they would look more heroic as they restored order.  This man has seen "law enforcement" shoot innocent men and women, tear apart his people with spies and disinformation, and imprison his friends without fair trial.  He knows what authority will do to preserve the status quo.  Most of the LA riot fires burned down some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.  The people who live there have been accused of doing it themselves.  Very little rebuilding has been done.  The wild fires in the Santa Monica Mountains torched the homes of some of the richest people in southern California.  No one has yet blamed them for doing it themselves and their properties are already swarming with construction workers and landscapers.

Back at the hotel Trudell tells me he's only got a couple of hours.  He has a child-care obligation.  We adjourn to my room to make a phone call.  When he finds that no one is at home we settle in to talk for a while.  I get out a pack of Camel filter cigarettes and hand them to him.

Trudell:  Thanks.

Press:  I saw this in Thunderheart.  In Sioux culture when you meet an elder you should bring tobacco.

Trudell:  [softly] Yeah.

Press:  Are you an elder?

Trudell:  Well, I'm your elder anyway.  I'm sure I'm older than you are.

When I called his publicist to arrange the interview in early November they told me that Trudell was making a movie in Michigan.  This turned out to be a little garbled.  He had a speaking engagement in Michigan and had been making a movie in Nevada with River Phoenix.  The 23 year old star recently collapsed and died in front of a club in Hollywood, his veins full of heroin, cocaine, alcohol and THC.
Press:  I wanted to ask you about the movie that you were going to be in, but apparently there's going to be no movie.  What was the name of it again?

Trudell:  Oh, the name of that film was Dark Blood.

Press:  What kind of character were you going to play?

Trudell:  An Indian. [laughs]  That's about it.

Press:  Blacks, or African-Americans, in the cinema are now getting these "color blind" roles; their blackness is not the primary reason for their presence.  They are just there being who they are and they happen to be black.  Would you like to see that sort of thing for American Indians, too?

Trudell:  You mean not being racially, stereotypically cast?  How much it will come to pass for us, I'm not sure.  We have to deal with the reality of numbers.  America acknowledges that are maybe a million of us, maybe two million, whatever the figures are that they throw out there and when we deal with sheer volume of numbers, we don't have the market.  So I think that there is a real good chance that it will happen for some individuals, but I don't see it becoming a standard.  If there were 30 or 40 million of us, then yes, I think it would be a different situation.  My real concern is [the necessity of presenting] contemporary stories.  And I mean real stories.

Press:  So you're saying Dances With Wolves.  Not!

Trudell:  No.  I had no interest in Dances With Wolves because to me, and this is nothing personal to anyone, to me what it represents is romantic fascism.  It's a very safe way of dealing with us:  through these romanticisms that become fascisms, because that is the only way they deal with us.  So, for myself I'll say that I have no interest in those films, but I will say that I do enjoy a good story that comes from the past.  But when the purpose of the story itself is to perpetuate a romanticism, I really don't have much use for it.  I think for us as a people we need to have contemporary stories and I'm not real happy that most stories that deal with us, deal with us from the perspective of the past.  It's like denying the reality of our present.

Press:  Are there any Indian movie directors?

Trudell:  There are Indian directors, but none that I can't think of off the top of my head that are producing feature films.  I know that there are a lot of Indian directors and I know they do a lot things that are documentary and for TV.  But I really don't see, because film is not really a center for me.  Anything that I have done has just come along and happened.  I am interested in doing more film, but it's never really been a focal point where I knew all about it, where I knew who all of the people are ...

Press:  You didn't go to the meetings.

Trudell:  Yeah, that's right.  I missed the meetings.

Press:  Do have an interest in participating more deeply? Going to the meetings?

Trudell:  No.  In doing more film, yeah.  I have an interest in doing more acting and maybe even doing stories for film at some point.

Press:  You mean screenwriting?
Trudell:  I'm going to call it 'making stories for film', but I guess yes, in a way we'd be talking about screenwriting.

Press:  To me the best films are ones that take fundamental themes, and because most films are made by white people these are themes from Western culture, and incorporate them into evocative stories.  "Good vs. evil" is an easy example.  We go over and over that in Western films:  the nature of evil.  Are there elements of American Indian culture that you could build into a contemporary situation?

Trudell:  We have our stories about the good and the bad and why things are as they are.  To me it just becomes the matter of having the opportunity - creating it or getting it, whatever - having the opportunity to tell our stories from our perspective [about] how we are now.  [To deal with these issues] is a truism of human nature.  When we look at Western civilization - their concepts of good and evil stem from their tribal ancestry.  The tribes always recognize light and dark.  Always did.  It is how the cultures dealt with these perceptions that is really at issue here.

Press:  And are still dealing with them?

Trudell:  Yes.  That's right.  See, we all come from a tribal ancestry.  Europeans come from a tribal ancestry.  We come from a tribal ancestry.  We have all encountered civilization, but the European tribes encountered civilization a thousand years or 1500 years or 2000 years before my tribes did.  So we have the same basic premise of a more natural understanding of reality, and in every natural understanding of reality there is good and bad.  I'm going to call it good and bad.  There's good and bad, the yin and the yang, the light and the dark, positive and negative, whatever terminology, but that's consistent to our DNA, no matter who we are because we all have a tribal ancestry.  But what Western ... I won't say Western ... I'll say the civilized view of evil and good is a distorted concept because it [has] a very narrow base.  The limitation of the civilized perception is that it is a male-dominated view of what life is supposed to be.  This is through the chain of command of gods.  Even good becomes evil to a large degree because of that limitation.  Other cultures have different perceptions and they are articulated and expressed differently ....  Part of my definition of civilization is anyone who relates to gods and not spirits.

Press:  What's the difference between a god and a spirit?

Trudell:  A god is an image of man.  It's an image that man creates.  Spirit just is.

Press:  But there were gods in some American Indian cultures.

Trudell:  I don't think that there were gods in our mythologies or stories.

Press:  If you go down to Central America or Mexico, the Mayans have pictures of their gods.  Although a lot of them are part animal.

Trudell:  I understand that, but I think that the word "god" is a Western word, so I don't think they necessarily related to them as gods.  We've got this white, male-dominated civilized perception:  these people here are worshipping this way, these things, so therefore they have a "god religion".   Maybe what the people truly had was a spiritual relationship with life and these forms and images had names, but I don't think they necessarily were gods.

Press:  So you're saying that the Western European god is just an image of "the male"?

Trudell:  The Western concept of god is a material concept because God in everyone's Western mind is a man and sits in Heaven on a throne and [there are] golden gates, pearly gates and streets of gold.  It's very material and has got nothing to do with spirit at all.  Or the reverse of [God], the evil is the Devil, another male, but he has a pitchfork and the fires are the physical form.  These are of the "human", but they are not of the "being".  Civilization is the process of separating the "human" from the "being", and creating imagery and controlling mechanisms for the "human" when the "human" no longer understands "being".  "Human" is the physical manifestation and "being" is the spiritual reality.  "Being" is the energy that makes us who we are.  And you have a vampire capitalist system tapping into ... mining that energy source.  The "refinement process" is civilization, male gods, male authority figures, and male decisions.  That's [part of] the mining process:  that's what eats the spirit.  There are entire civilized nations where the individuals feel that something is missing from their life.

Press:  That comes up in surveys and interviews a lot now.

Trudell:  That's right.  They're being fed upon.  Their very "being" is being fed upon.

Press:  In other words, this would make a good movie.

Trudell:  I'll put it like this:  it makes a real story.

Press:  The distinction that you are making is new to me.

Trudell:  Yes, but it's ancient.  This distinction is something that we all have in common within our ancestral DNA.  The tribes of Europe resisted civilization as much as the Indians did here.  That's why they had things like the Inquisition that lasted for five hundred years.  Make the people accept the authority of the church.  Up to that point they [the European tribes] had been willing to put up with whatever abstraction, but they kept incorporating their own tribal, heathen or pagan [ideas].  In Europe at one time the people related to "the goddess", the Earth mother, and they related to the serpent as being her messenger.  And when the male-dominated god appeared they knew they couldn't erase that from people's minds.  They knew [the people] would always remember that.  So what they did is they altered it and they said that Eve, representing the woman, committed the first crime by the way she participated with the serpent.  They didn't eliminate it from the consciousness; they just redefined it.

Press:  Some tribes, like the Mayans and the Aztecs, built elaborate civilizations?   These people built large cities, developed written languages, kept records, had a class system which was rigidly maintained.  They became over populated and engaged in some ugly wars and, in the case of the Mayans, declined before the Europeans arrived.  This picture seems very familiar to a European.  They seem like us.  In the New World or the Old World any society that develops a written language seems to divorce itself from the land.  I asked Leslie Marmon Silko [a Laguna Pueblo author] about this.  She said that the Mayan mystics had foreseen the coming of the Europeans and had dissembled their empire on purpose.  I asked Joseph Bruchac [an Abenaki author] and he told me that my archaeology was incorrect.

Trudell:  I think that we will never know the truth.  I think that most of the information we get is from the European perspective.  [They see] all these structures and say 'That's how we would have done it' and project [their values onto the Mayans].  That Western civilized perception is generally wrong about everything.  That's what my instincts tell me.  I've heard about the Aztecs and the human sacrifices, but I don't know what the basis of it was.  If they had human sacrifice the way it has been told, then in that respect they were no different than Europe.  I haven't tried to go back and figure that one out because the only reference points we have are European [archaeological] interpretations.  I know that [the Europeans] burned [the Mayan] libraries and destroyed their written word.  This makes me wonder if there was some knowledge that they didn't want [known].  If the book burners didn't want that knowledge out, then the victim must not have been as bad as the victor made them out to be.

Press:  What I'm getting at is that there is this reverse racism coming from some Indians:  "We are better than you are.  We would never have been corrupt like you are."

Trudell:  But that's going to come out of any group of people that have been terrorized.  Any victim of genocide is going to show that.  You find it in every race and every culture if genocide has been committed against them.  When these things come up, I just don't pay any attention to them.

Press:  This is something I would like to run past you.  It is probably borne out of late 20th century white male rationalizing.  Part of what made the Europeans so murderous and so cruel toward the Indians when they got here is what you are talking about right now:  they were tribal in their blood, but for generations they had been taught this Middle Eastern philosophy - their religion - and there was a war going on between the brain and the blood, which is tearing their heads apart.

Trudell:  Between the human and the being.

Press:  Right.  There's just this ripping going on and it makes them crazy.

Trudell:  Let's say there's a mining process.  The same way they mine natural resources to change it into the energy to have the electricity and the cars and all the stuff that we have now.  Let's say there's a mining process that goes on simultaneous to that one [and it is carried out] by the controllers, the authorities.  They mine the mind to get at the being, to get at the spirit.  This is where all the insecurities, the lack of purpose, the doubts [come from].  That is the pollution that's left over from the mining of the spirit.

Press:  What is the purpose of the soul-mining?

Trudell:  So that then there will be a need for the physical, for the physical structures, for the luxury.  There will be a need for that.  And then you can create profit systems.  And then you can create a physical definition of authoritarian power.  You can call it democracy, socialism, whatever you want to call it. Whatever you  do, all that [profit] flows to a few.  Columbus was like a virus.  When I look at Columbus and the whole European arrival, you can't lay it on Columbus.  Nobody that came with him or after him behaved any better.  So it wasn't Columbus.  He behaved according to the standards of his civilization.  The Inquisition had been running since the 12th century.  When Columbus and his people came they were coming out of this reign of literal terror, where humans didn't have any rights.  Even [the Europeans] didn't.  They were coming out of this totally possessed perception of life.  That was their disease.  The disease was in the mind and it had been put there through terror and brutality and deceit.  It affects the spirit and how one thinks.  To me, when Columbus arrived, the disease arrived in a place that didn't have the disease before and therefore had no natural anti-biotics to deal with the disease.  Evolution creates that [disease] as time unfolds.  When [the Europeans] came here they were insane, basically, but they defined [their condition as] sanity because it was the norm for them:  to be owned, to be mistreated, to be brutalized.  And nothing has changed.  The citizens are still misused and brutalized.

Press:  It's interesting the way you're putting this.  Because of my own heritage I see this more from Columbus's point of view.  I think that  Columbus and everyone that came after him wreaked such havoc because they were jealous.  They stumbled on a whole couple of continents that Christianity had not yet reached.  The tribalism was intact.  To see that would make a European insanely jealous at some unconscious level and they would try to kill or change the people.

Trudell:  I think that jealousy is one of the symptoms of the disease.  But I think what it really was was that everyone had been brutalized for four hundred years.  It was just pure hate.  Hate of self.  Hate of the system that they were in.  Just pure hate.  The jealousy came later.  It was hate and money.  The whole concept of "for love or money" comes from the church.  The church says that you should do it for money and the pagans and the "useless ones", they did it for love.  [He laughs.  I think that 'it' refers to either killing or fornication or both]  So, by the time they got here self-hate was the motivation, but money or material gain was the incentive.

Press:  Is your view widespread among Indians?

Trudell:  Among the tribal people I don't know how much it gets articulated, but I think that there is a pretty good consensus about what I am saying.  I know some more of the facts and other people don't.  I can articulate if differently, but if we just get right down to the essence of the feeling I would say that it's a pretty prevalent feeling.

Press:  In an interview with traditionalist Mohawks {Press, December issue} regarding the issue of gambling on the reservations, Press interviewers, somewhat confused by the apparent failure of the traditionalists to take action against tribe members who were violating tribal custom, suggested using the authority of the longhouse to "excommunicate" the Mohawks who were cooperating with the Federal and state authorities.

Trudell:  [laughs]  They still haven't got the Inquisition out of their blood.

Press:  I heard a story on the radio about whites and some Indians that were conducting Indian ceremonies and dances for New Age white audiences who were often paying customers.

Trudell:  They need to do more with their [own] creativity rather than look for some abstract spiritual bliss that just gonna save the world.  [The New Agers] are connected into the communities that can do things.  If they just go on a spiritual trip and say that takes care of their responsibilities, then that becomes their irresponsibility.  [He acknowledges that people are doing the ceremonies for money, but] I don't consider that that is going to bring bad luck to the tribe.  If the person who's doing this is misusing this power, then it may bring bad luck to this person.  I'm for letting everyone do the best they can with the best that they have.  What's not going to work will evolve itself right out.  What I know about the ceremonies is that anytime that one really makes an effort to address power ... spirits, some say ... natural power ... they always get through.  But if they are confused and don't know what they are doing, then they won't get to understand the result.  If I am addressing my reality as coherently as I can, then I will be protected from these people.  There are differences within the tribal [community] that the non-tribal people exacerbate through their lines of questioning and [their] reasoning.  They don't understand why people are acting [in a particular way].

Press:  It's difficult to admit but I think that many European and American individuals look for sympathy from the people that we've oppressed as a race.

Trudell:  Well, I don't have any sympathy for them.

Press:  This is the thing though.  I think that there are a lot of white people who approach black people in the U.S. and aboriginal people all over the world, and say 'Look, I didn't do it.  I wouldn't have had any part of it.  Give me a break."  Do you run into that?

Trudell:  Over the years I've heard a lot of that.  But it's not about that to me.  I don't want to alleviate anybody's guilt because it's not about guilt.  Guilt isn't the issue.  The issue is to either behave in a responsible manner or not.  And part of behaving in a responsible manner is to no longer enable or be a part of these systems that are so abusive to all of life, whether it's human beings or plants or animals or the sky or the water.  It's nothing more than saying 'This is the truth' and we've got to look at the truth:  white people did this.  And they did it because somebody did it to them.  Look at the truth and take responsibility, but it's not about blame.  The only people I dislike [I dislike] because I just don't like them. [laughs]  It's not by some generalization.  I used to think about this:  does this become the new avoidance of responsibility - saying 'Don't blame me.'  Are there certain truths we can't talk about because they make [white people] uncomfortable as a race?  I say, 'Well, there's no cure for the disease, if we're not going to take the shots.' [laughs]  I realize that as a spiritual entity the white race is the most oppressed race of all.  I don't know if I would begrudge them what they have created materially, but I do know that the brutalization process that went along with that is totally unreasonable and unacceptable to any true standard of life or understanding of life.

Press:  This past summer Press asked a Mohawk how he could sell gasoline because it's bad for the environment and Indians can't do that.  They are supposed to live in harmony with the earth.

Trudell:  Instead of asking me as an Indian why I sell gasoline, why aren't you over there telling General Motors and all of them to make a better carburetor that will burn the gas more efficiently and get you 80 miles to the gallon, which they have the technological ability to do.  To make tires that will last a quarter of a million miles, which they have the technological ability to do.

Press:  This gets back to the soul-mining.  Europeans and Americans don't understand when you [Indians] refuse to suffer voluntarily.  We believe we are being "good" when we deny ourselves some of our desires or comforts, and we go without in order to be more pure [of spirit].  This is a cornerstone of Western morality and it seems to be a completely alien concept to Indians.

Trudell:  Because we don't feel impure.  Psychologically, we are not destroyed.  Purity is about something else to us.

Press:  You don't have 'original sin'.

Trudell:  Here is where we get into fine lines.  That same European or American that says 'Don't blame me.  I didn't do it' just has his own version of 'it'.  The prison that he wants to put us in is [created by] his perception of how he wants us to behave.  [He feels we shouldn't] sell gasoline to make a living because it's ecologically impure, and yet he flies on a jet to come over here and talk to us about how to be ecologically pure.

Press:  Have you thought about NAFTA from the standpoint of the Indian nations?

Trudell:  Everybody is going to get screwed and that's NAFTA.  It's got to do with the 'new world order'.  It's got to do with creating the global government that going to rule into the 21st century.  It's got to do with the ruling-class rich consolidating their wealth.  It's got to do with creating the 'neon fiefdom':  the new Dark Ages.  Whatever effect it has on us, [it] will be the same as all the rest of the effects [down through history].  We are not a worker society.  We're not going to be affected in the sense of losing our jobs, because we don't have jobs.  Things are hard and it's not going to get any easier.  It's a new sore on the disease.

Press:  The Mohawks are trying to establish their own economy.  Shouldn't they and other Indian nations demand to be equal partners in NAFTA?

Trudell:  They could make that request, but I don't see how the tribes would receive practical benefit out of this, because what they are doing is consolidating economic and geographical territory in order to maximize their profits on a global scale.  That means conformity.  It doesn't mean independence.

Press:  What is the present state of the American Indian Movement?  Disrepair?

Trudell:  It's [a set of] autonomous groups now.  It's not a national organization.  It never will be a national organization in the sense that it was.  The political, para-military, legal and economic war that was waged against us in the end scattered the organization, which I think is better anyway.  More autonomy, more thought, rather than a central [organization] that was alien to us as a culture anyway.

Press:  What was the primary reason that AIM was so viciously infiltrated and squashed in the 1970s?

Trudell:  It was about law and we were right.  [Suddenly he is up on his feet and pacing around the room .]  Not just morally, but from a legal perspective.  From the definition of law we were right.  Because we were challenging the government on the basis of the treaties.  The Constitution itself says that the Constitution and the treaties are the supreme law of the land.  We had a legitimate legal basis [for autonomy] outside of any definition of civil rights.  People make a lot of money off the Indians, off the colonization of our tribes.  The agencies, the bureaucracies, the people that rip the land.  All of that is a part of it, but the real threat was that if the Indians got to do what they wanted to do, then the whites were going to want to do it, too.  At Wounded Knee you had armed Indians occupying a village and challenging the U.S. government on treaties and the way it treats us.  When you went to the public opinion polls there were more Americans supporting the armed Indians than supported the existing government in power.  In the paranoid minds [of the government] this is serious, because nobody is supposed to pick up guns to defend themselves as a community or for political purposes.  Only cops get to do that or people that corporations hire. 

Press:  So the fact that you were threatening the status quo was more important than the fact that you were sitting on uranium?

Trudell:  I think so.  Because there is uranium in other places that they can get and [then] come back for this later.  We didn't have the political power.  We didn't have the economic power.  We certainly didn't have the military power.  So what other reason could there possibly be that they would come down as hard as they came down?  It has to be of the spirit, so to speak.  The Constitution is the treaty that the citizens have made with government.  And the Bill of Rights, that's their treaty rights.  They don't want the citizens of this country understanding things like that because then they might want to change how they're governed or who governs them.  They might want to change a lot of things.  Let's [look at] the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty [between the Sioux and the U.S. government].  Obviously we are not going to regain physical possession of all that land.  We did not have it in our physical possession all the time anyway.  That was our range, our economic base as a moving people.  [The treaty forbids] the states and the Federal government the right to tax.  Let's talk about this.  If the treaty was recognized and lived by, then you'd have this whole new jurisdiction.  All the people living within the treaty lands would no longer be obligated to pay the Federal government or state or city or municipal governments any taxes.  Which means they could create [a new] tax system that would more realistically address the needs of the community rather than protect the corporate rich.  So it's not unrealistic for the treaties to be lived by.  People would have to use their creative minds to figure out the new system that they would [erect within the treaty lands].  It would seem to me that it would be in the best interests of the average citizen.

Press:  There are a lot of white people that live within the area covered by the Fort Laramie Treaty [half of South Dakota and parts of four other states].  You're saying that they would be subject to the terms of the treaties, too?

Trudell:  That's what I'm saying:  nobody has to pay [taxes to the United States].  But because you have to have services - we live in [the modern] age and services have to be provided - you create a new tax [system], but every corporate entity that is there, they are going to pay some of this tax.  [The amount you pay] would be based on the amount of income you take out of that community.

Press:  So you are saying that what is really worrisome to the U.S. government is that this [desire for autonomy] will spread out of the Indian population and into the white population.  The residents of south Florida, for instance, would maybe say 'We'd like to do the same thing.'

Trudell:  Yeah.  That's right.  Some of them wouldn't even want to deal with us [the tribes], but they would like to do the same thing.  That's exactly right.  If [the government] respects of one group of individuals in this democracy, they are afraid they are going to have to respect the rights of all the groups.

Press:  What you are saying about the effect of the treaties being honored is being proven correct in New York state.  The Oneidas and the Onondagas are making a lot of money with casinos and in the white community a movement is rapidly gaining strength to legalize gambling elsewhere in the state.  "The Indians have it.  Why can't we?

Trudell:  Don't look at the gambling as an honoring of the treaties.  The treaties encompass much more.  I don't find anything wrong with including gambling as a part of an economy.  For some whites it  is just entertainment, which is as it should be, but collectively it's almost like a compulsion.  They don't handle it well.  For us, gambling has always been a part of our culture, whether stick games or hand games or whatever they were.  I think it's something we have a different perception of.  I am more concerned about what the influx of money would do to communities that don't have any money.  But it's up to the tribes to decide who they are and how they are going to do things.  I trust that in the tribes.

Press:  Why don't you live on a reservation?

Trudell:  There are many reasons, but what I've finally come to understand is 'This is a reservation'.  [He spreads his arms to indicate the Los Angeles area as a whole.]

Press:  But it's not an Indian reservation.

Trudell:  It's an industrial reservation.

Press:  That's a nice word for it.

Trudell:  It's a bigger reservation.  It's more practical to do what I do from where I'm at.


He has to leave.  He tells me that he will try to find time for me tomorrow.  I give him my phone number.  The next day he does call and he is running behind schedule.  He offers to wrap this up long-distance over the phone.


I have listened to the interview tape a couple of times. Something about Trudell sounds familiar.  He sounds like a hippie to me.  It was all that talk of "reality" and "perceptions".  On the phone the following week, I ask him about this.  "I never thought of myself as a hippie" he says.  I press him a little:  But he was in San Francisco for the Alcatraz occupation in the late 60s and early 70s.  That was the hippie heyday.  "Well, I'm sure I absorbed something.  They were part of that time and I was there."  Did the hippie movement "take" anything from American Indian culture, I ask.  It turns out to be a poor choice of words.  "The white oppressors 'took' a lot of things.  The hippies may have imitated us, but we were never bothered by them."  Did the traditional Indians on the reservations think that AIM people were hippie Indians coming in and interfering?  He seems to regard this as preposterous.  "The tribal people knew who we were.  They didn't confuse us with anybody else." 

I bring up the president, Bill Clinton, his fellow baby boomer.  Clinton is encouraging everyone to have 'hope', I say.  "Hope was the last thing out of Pandora's box," he says with a certain amount of glee, "Hope is what you tell people to have so that they will tolerate oppression and injustice."

We had talked about the fact that most white people are driven through life by fear, ambition and greed.  What drives the Indians through life, I wonder?  Again I am on the wrong track. "We aren't driven.  We do things that help us to find a purpose to our lives."  And what is the purpose of his life?  "To leave more trees than I cut down." 

John Trudell was a public speaker throughout the 1970s.  His words were broadcast over radio and television, printed in newspapers and magazines, to be heard or read once and then consigned to library microfiche.  But since 1979 he has been publishing poetry and recording albums.  Now the public can listen or read his to words again and again.  What does this change mean to him?  "I think I am preparing for my own death."  Are these the little trees that you are going to leave behind?  "Yes.  That's right."

Hibernian Weather Channel Productions

Last revised:  May 11, 2005