James “Jimmy” Looks Twice in Thunderheart, played by John Trudell.
By Lara Trace (former editor of the Pequot Times 1999-2004)
It happened years ago… but I can still feel myself outside the Pequot Museum on a bench and the wind is really blowing and John is speaking about his album, and latest tour.
I knew I’d have to read what he said a few times after I listened to the tape I made. John Trudell was deep, so deep, with level upon level of meaning in both his spoken words and lyrics. I’d hear him, then I’d process more after a second or third listen… I can’t forget what he said about power and responsibility – you’ll read what he said in this interview. With the next presidential election whirling around us, it’s hard not to feel powerless. But we are not powerless.
You all know John was an great actor. He was unforgettable in the movie THUNDERHEART. (Top Photo.) I was lucky to interview him more than once. (I spoke with him at the Honor the Earth powwow in 1999 in Wisconsin.) John had a fiery spirit yet he was also fragile. I felt good energy all around him; his strength was palpable. After he lost his family, everyone wondered how he’d survive that, even years later. I don’t know how any human could survive intact after your entire family was killed by a house fire. John did. John mourned deeply and soared above loss.
From my notes, I was glad when Trudell explained how belief (as in religion belief) takes the place of thinking. I jotted in my notes, “Don’t believe – THINK. We put a whole lot of energy into HOPE and BELIEF and that energy falls into a void and disappears…. You BELIEVE so you don’t have to think…… You HOPE so you don’t have to truly act – it’s a sedation (drug). Nothing changes, religion is brainwashing the consciousness of people desperate to believe…. this just puts the mind in a prison…
“Violence, terror and traumas has defeated tribal belief systems from tribal Europe thru today… and then the traumatized blame themselves….. and the beast continues to get bigger. The answer is NON-COOPERATION and a clear thinking human being….” Trudell didn’t waste any words.
The story I’d heard about Trudell (more than once) was he could walk into a group of angry white ranchers full of their prejudice about Indian people and they’d all walk out of the room with their arms over each others shoulders. That was John.
Here’s what I wrote up back in 2000…
Trudell kicks off Pequot Museum concert series
Poet, activist, prophet, American Indian Movement (AIM) founder, actor and recording artist John Trudell (Santee), made a concert stop with his band Bad Dog, at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in May (2000).
Trudell uses words as medicine, so his political and poetic abilities created the new album Blue Indians, on Dangerous Discs records, released in 1999, his ninth album, produced by Jackson Browne.
“I called the album Blue Indians because there is a kind of spiritual and cultural genocide perpetrated on everyone that is poor in this country,” Trudell said. “The advance of technology has put all of us on a kind of reservation. These are the people who can’t educate their children, or afford health care. They’ve been robbed of life, which is what happened to Native people, so in that context, we’re all Indians.”
The “spoken word” artist said he didn’t set out to be a poet or writer. After an unspeakable tragedy took the lives of his wife, Tina, their three children and Tina’s mother, back in 1979, he started writing. The fire that killed them was declared an accident by the FBI who declined to investigate. This happened just 12 hours after a group marched to FBI headquarters in Wash. DC, where Trudell delivered an address on the FBI’s war against Native Americans. He burned an American flag in protest of racism and class injustice. To this day, Trudell believes government operatives set the blaze, “It was murder. They were murdered as an act of war.” [READ MORE ABOUT TINA]
After 1971, Native men and women formed the national American Indian Movement, in response to the horrific conditions on reservations and the many unsolved murders. Trudell served as National AIM Chairman from 1973-79. During that time the FBI compiled a 17,000 page file (covering Trudell’s activities from 1969-80).
Of some 60 pages obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, describing Trudell as a major threat to national security, the memo said, “Extremely eloquent – therefore extremely dangerous.”
Writing has helped Trudell keep some sanity and continue to survive. In 1981, he published a book of poetry “Living in Reality” and by 1982 combined music and poetry, with the help of his musician friends Jackson Browne and future collaborator Jesse Ed Davis, a Kiowa from Oklahoma.
When asked how he deals with anger, Trudell told one reviewer, “I look at it as healthy. It’s like sadness. There’s a reason we’re given certain feelings. I think anger is necessary to our survival and reality, but now we live in a technology reality where people are programmed not to accept their anger. I think we can use it as fuel for clarity, focus and accomplishment. Anger doesn’t have to be a distorting experience.”
In May, the band played songs from the album Blue Indians, while Trudell spoke his poetic lyrics. About promoting the album, he said later, “We don’t tour like other bands. We hit the road sometimes for a week, or several weeks. It’s more practical for us.”
I met John at LCO in 1999 and he signed it!
In concert, Trudell referred to humans as being mined, like resources, such as minerals, and reminded us we are indeed composed of the earth’s materials. After the concert, he explained the effects of mining humans, “The feeling of powerlessness that this society has, I think is a result of mining humans because the people do feel powerless. I think no clear, coherent thinking people, would accept as normal the conditions that they have to accept. So, the only reason I can see that people would accept the inequities, are because they feel powerless to deal with them. The powerlessness may disguise itself as rage, or racial hatred, or sexism, it may disguise itself in many ways, but basically the common thread is a feeling of powerlessness among the people.
“That means all the aggressive attitudes basically get internalized. I think that’s the obvious result of being mined as an individual. If they are being real with themselves, no pretending, no justification or rationalization, how many people feel that they have any real power?
“How many people feel powerless to deal with situations put in their life? It’s got to do with perceptional reality. If you use our intelligence as clearly and coherently as we can, I think we’d understand that we are not necessarily powerless. But we don’t know how to relate to power, or recognize it, therefore we don’t know how to exercise it.”
And, Trudell said we can’t accept this idea of being mined because we can’t recognize it or see it.
“We’re not taught about our personal relationship to power. We’re not taught about our relationship to the Great Spirit. Recognizing power is what you have to do. When you recognize it, you exercise it.
“You can’t take back what they have already taken but you can stop the taking of your power, once you recognize it.”
On the importance of prayer, John said he prays for balance. “Prayer is often a misused word. There are people who pray for things to make them happy so I don’t know if they’re really praying. Then there are people who pray for the welfare of others. Some people don’t pray so much for their own individualized ego, but understand that prayer is a way of thinking in harmony with the Creator. Praying is a way of participating with the Creator.
“Prayer that is based upon thought and feeling, then that prayer is participating. Prayer that is based upon need and emotion, that prayer is not participating in a synchronized manner, because it’s based on the ego’s need and emotion.”
“Responsibility is the way to fulfillment, when one recognizes and exercises their responsibility, this is how one is to be free. It’s a way of reconnecting with power for us as humans.”
On his own life, Trudell said, “I see as clearly as I can. The objective is for me to be as real to myself as I can possibly be. The more real I can be to myself, the more real maybe I can be to other people. It’s a challenge.”
(Published in the Pequot Times.)
We lost John in 2015.
Indian Country Today on John Trudell Legacy
This entire post is relevant to this quote: