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Alibi Flashback: John Trudell speaks

Our 1994 interview with the late poet and activist

A few days ago, on Dec. 9, poet, activist and hero John Trudell passed away at the age of 69. He was perhaps best known as the spokesman for AIM protesters during the takeover of Alcatraz Island in 1969.

Way back in the time before time (which is to say, 1994), Bill and Charlene Sewady sat down with John Trudell and talked with him about his experiences. This seems like an appropriate time to reach back into the archives and revisit that interview.

V.3 No.47 • November 29-December 5, 1994
V.3 No.47 • November 29-December 5, 1994

Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say

An Interview with John Trudell

by Bill and Charlene Sewady

Publication date: November 29, 1994

We felt a tingle of power that day we were scheduled to do a phone interview with John Trudell. A type of electricity popped and sizzled, a force field that seemed to keep the non-Native Americans in the room slightly at bay as they slid us puzzled glances while we joked about “circling the fort.” We felt mischievous and brave. We had a hero in an era where they’re hard to find.

A Santee Sioux from Nebraska, Trudell has lived through several wars—Vietnam, for example, where he served in the Marines; the Native reclamation of Alcatraz Island in 1969; and then a series of reservation wars, including Oglala in the mid-1970s and later, in 1979 on a Nevada reservation, when his wife Tina, their three children and Tina’s mother were burned to death in a suspicious blaze that occurred less than 24 hours after he had burned an American flag at Washington D.C.’s J. Edgar Hoover Building—home base for those galloping G-men. The FBI continues to monitor Trudell, maintaining close surveillance of his activities and compiling, to date, 17,000 pages of secret information on him.

But Trudell has molded tragedy, righteous rage and an ongoing commitment to true justice into his own unique artform: poetry, lyrics and music that come together as “rant and roll.” In his work, he is politically vigilant and relentlessly critical of hierarchical capitalism, bosses and those who would disrespect and malign the Earth. “Say what you mean,” he insists, “mean what you say.” And Trudell himself says everything with profound conviction.

Wilma Mankiller, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation and longtime family friend recalls, in her autobiography, one encounter with Trudell that exemplifies his unwavering perspective and intractability. During one of his visits to the Cherokee tribal headquarters, he walked into her office sporting a Mohawk haircut. Upon seeing him she remembers shaking her head and telling him that he was one of her “most bizarre friends.” His succinct response, laden with irony, was, “You have the nerve to sit there and tell me that I’m bizarre? Here you are in this complex running a great big bureaucratic organization. What about you? I think you’re the one who is bizarre.” She looked down at her desk, her business suit, her multiple phone lines and realized exactly what his point was.

So as we spoke to John Trudell, after experiencing apprehension and last minute bouts of insecurity about the scope of our prepared questions, we discovered one more thing about him: the guy was friggin’ nice! He put aside our intimidation promptly and reminded us, with his words, his approach, his laughter and his genuineness, that we were kindred, that we sought the same peace and balance in our lives, the same hope for the next seven generations to come, and that really, he couldn’t be a hero after all, because, as he said to us, “There are no heroes, there are only heroic acts.”

Here, then, is not what our hero, but what our Brother had to say.

You’ve lived many lives so far, during this earthly lifetime: You’ve been a Marine during Vietnam, an AIM member; you’ve been involved in battles with the federal government and have endured subsequent personal tragedies; you’ve been in documentaries (Incident at Oglala) and have acted in movies (Thunderheart); you’re a poet/musician (several CDs, the most recent of which is Johnny Damas and Me); and now you’ve just published a book of conversation, lyrics and poetry (Stickman). Where do you think this continuum of experiences is taking you?

Into madness. I mean, don’t rule it out, right? I’m not really sure. In my own mind I’m headed in a direction. I can’t really define that direction. It just seems that all of these things are consistent. These are just like worlds I’ve been through. But each world seems to put me dead center in the next one.

In reality, we, at this given moment in time, are an accumulation of all of our experiences. That is a part of our physical identity within this life. We’re all affected differently by our experiences, but in the end that’s what we are: a continuum of every experience we’ve had since we entered into this life and probably, way in our DNA, a continuum of other experiences.

One of the things you do best is “rant and roll,” a term you use in the song of the same name on your Johnny Damas and Me CD. What’s your perspective, your rant and roll on the recent elections, with Republicans gaining the majority?

I think, on one level, no one’s really satisfied with the way that things are going. You have what are called the different political spectrums—left to right, or whatever—but I look at what we have in common. The vast majority of the people in this country know something’s not right—whether I agree with them politically or not isn’t the point.

But what is happening in this country is that the ruling class rich aren’t concerned about civil rights any more, or even the appearance of civil rights. They’re getting ready to wage war against the poor. That’s their solution to the problems of the economic and material inequities. Everything is being positioned for that: to create, in the name of National Security and things like that, a more totalitarian state where the rights of the individual—the alleged rights of the individual—will be given to the state and the corporate entity itself …

The people themselves, in general, don’t like what’s going on, but they can’t get a collective, coherent thought as to how to deal with it. I think that we can get our coherency back and deal with these situations in a very clear-sighted manner. But it’s a matter of whether the ruling class is going to be able to fan [the flames] of race, gender, class and the emotionalism that goes with those issues to keep us incoherent.

Do you think this increasingly intensified sense of imbalance represents the crumbling of our current system—or even of capitalism as we know it?

No. This system isn’t crumbling. It’s entrenching. The illusions of democracy are going to start crumbling, but the system is maintaining itself.

Being as I come from the tribes, I have to look at democracy in a more pragmatic manner. Theoretically, democracy is based upon majority rule. But when democracy as a plan, as a political ideology, was created during the so-called founding of this country by white “forefathers,” the tribes of the Northern Hemisphere were the majority, but they were called the enemy so they didn’t get to play. Then you go within that European culture itself that was creating this “democracy”: If you were a woman, you were mentally inferior—so you didn’t get to play. If you were a white male that didn’t own property, you had no value—so you didn’t get to play. And if you were black, you were property so you didn’t get to play. So all of a sudden, when we look at the reality of this, you had to be a land owning member of what was then the ruling class to get to play.

We really need to understand that that’s what democracy means. It doesn’t mean anything else; it means very specifically what it does and is. We have been told that democracy means something else, so we keep trying to save ourselves, to get some kind of meaning in our lives by building it around the illusionary description of democracy rather than pragmatically dealing with the reality of it. It is a minority rule system, and it’s a property-based minority rule system. That is the reality. I think that if it truly is a democracy, we shouldn’t have to worry about trying to save it; we should be dealing with real problems, like what is happening with the environment, for example—and when I say the environment I’m not just talking about the trees and the water, I’m talking about us, because we’re part of the living, natural world, therefore we’re a part of the environment, physically and intellectually.

But we live in such an increasingly technological environment. In a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death, which was a critical analysis of TV, the author suggested that our world more closely resembles Aldous Huxley’s vision of the future than Orwell’s in that our pleasures will ultimately oppress us more than our fears will …

But our pleasure is our fear.

Shit. How did that happen?

I don’t know. Somebody twisted this one.

If we were to take an objective look at western history, we would see that this whole civilization has been based on authoritarianism and totalitarianism—it has just dressed differently at different times. When you go back through history, [you see] a system of subservience. Somebody has to be subservient to somebody else and follow the chain of command. It’s not a system of equality. It never has been. Democracy isn’t, it has not been; the feudal system was not, the fiefdoms, serfdoms, the Crusades—none of it. When you go through centuries of that, it is almost becomes a part of the genetic memory and then there is no clear line between pleasure and fear—they become the same.

Somewhat along those same lines—fear, oppression, authority, justice and punishment—is the case of Leonard Peltier [who was, according to many sources, erroneously convicted and imprisoned for the 1975 shooting deaths of two FBI agents at Oglala, South Dakota]. In a statement to his federal captors, Peltier said, “After centuries of murder, could I have been wise in thinking that you would break that tradition and commit an act of justice?” i.e., by granting him a new trial and restoring his freedom. In order to combat ongoing appeals for his release, the FBI Agents Association has recently taken out full page ads in publications ranging from the New York Post to Indian Country Today, claiming that, “[Leonard Peltier is a] vicious, violent and cowardly criminal who hides behind legitimate Native American issues.” So we still need to ask, what is justice, where is justice, is there justice, and will it ever arrive through the federal government?

There is no justice. That’s a lie. It’s not about justice—it’s like this illusion of democracy representing equality and freedom. When you think about justice, those who have been murdered can’t be given back their lives, those who have been unjustly locked up, like in Peltier’s situation—18 years, or however long it’s been—you cannot give him those years back. So it’s not about justice; America is not about justice. If you were to look at it practically, the best we can do is attempt to deal with a wrong and stop that wrong from perpetuating itself. If you cannot bring back the dead who have been killed or murdered, then how do you create justice? That’s how I look at it. If you cannot give the years back, then how do you create justice? All you can do is deal with the wrong.

One of the things I would observe about the FBI and the fact that they are waging a political campaign to try to discredit Leonard—that to me addresses the reality of the validity of Leonard’s issue: What are they so damn paranoid about? If it’s about justice the way they say it is, and they’re right, then what are they so paranoid about? Every time they think people are going to start paying attention to Leonard, they start putting money into a political campaign. They’re using their position of authoritarianism to intimidate people.

The FBI is very much against that truth coming out. They don’t want another hearing, they don’t want anyone re-investigating the case at all. My personal opinion is that someone connected to the FBI was involved in that whole situation and the FBI cannot afford to have that come up. That would bring up how far their agents can go in breaking the law. Did someone working for the FBI set up those agents? It could be that someone working for the FBI killed [those agents].

Anything is possible with the FBI …

Anything is possible. If people would look at how the FBI has really done a lot of its political work, not only is this possible, it has a high degree of probability also.

So where is our reality amidst all this illusion? In the first few pages of your book, Stickman, you say that “the people have a history of cooperation and taking care and respect and sharing. That is the history of the People. That history goes way beyond 500 years, and we’re connected to that history. But if we separate ourselves from that Reality, then we step further and further into confusion.” How do you think we can maintain focused reality as Native peoples?

Well, I’d have to address that on an individual basis: We shouldn’t lie to ourselves, you know? We shouldn’t lie to ourselves about anything, ever. We should always tell the truth, because it’s only through that process can we truly set and define our own reality. It’s very important that we have our own basis of reality.

See, for us as Native people, if we don’t lie to ourselves, our identity can be found in our birth. It’s in our DNA, it’s in our genetic memory. We may go through many genocidal and cultural traumas, the trauma of assimilation, but that does not change the reality of who we are. Our Earth is our identity. We were traumatized and brutalized and a whole lot of things happened to us in the course of our lives, in the process of genocide against the tribes. To be true to ourselves we should remember that process of genocide, know that our birth gives us our identity, and then proceed from there.

We also shouldn’t lie to ourselves about our daily actions: If we say we respect the Mother Earth, then we have to do it; if we say we respect our elders, then we have to do it. We can’t say we do these things and then do something else…

In terms of Mother Earth, your respect for women is tangible in much of your work. There’s a Native saying that states, “A people cannot be overcome until the hearts of the women are on the ground.” With phrases like “the rape of the Earth,” and other similarly familiar metaphors, we can see that much of the derision for women seems to parallel the derision of the earth. How do you address this in your work?

Well, to me, the women and the Earth, they are the gender; they are the mother gender; they are the feminine aspect of life. Our DNA comes from this Earth, we are of this Earth, so the Earth is literally our Mother. And at the same time, as human beings we are born and we enter this reality through the woman, so our DNA is of the woman. The feminine manifestations of life—that which gives us physical life—are the Earth and the woman and we need to have some type of understanding about that because we cannot save the environment and have sexism. They’re interconnected.

And I can’t claim that I’m this totally sensitive guy toward woman, because that would be an exaggeration. Women have been better to me than I have been to them, but it’s about taking responsibility for what we do. I know that we should know to respect the women, the Earth, all of life.

Moving right along from our home planet to the outermost reaches of the galaxy, Star Trek: Generations has officially opened now, so we have a Star Trek question for you: Gene Roddenberry, creator of the original “Star Trek” series, said that he envisioned Star Trek as the “Wagon Train of outer space.” How would you re-conceptualize that series from a Native perspective?

We’ve been around this long, so they better watch out, because there will be Indians in outer space too! The Wagon Train might have better technology, but they better be careful messing with those Indians out there!

Ulohnan do:shonan udenan dehya’ hon a:deyaye.

These are our seeds of life and what we value as sacred, through which we exist.