In loving memory of acclaimed poet, actor, and activist John:
A reflection on his words, work, and message .
Throughout my life my heroes have always been people who have every reason to turn their backs on hope, love, and beauty, yet they don’t, they do the opposite. Something within the pain, loss, tragedy, and trauma they endured caused them to dig deeper. To dig a well so deep that clear, refreshing life-giving water springs forth from them to all who are willing to listen. One such human being is John Trudell.
John Trudell is an acclaimed poet, national recording artist, actor, and activist whose international following reflects the universal language of his words, work, and message. Trudell (Santee Dakota) was a spokesperson for the Indians of All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969 to 1971. He then worked with the American Indian Movement (AIM), serving as Chairman of AIM from 1973 to 1979.
When John graciously agreed to allow me to interview him for the Good Men Project I was excited. After my excitement settled down, my thoughts went to what could I possibly share with the world about him that was not shared in, the amazing documentary about his life which was directed by Heather Rae, and one of the producers being Angelina Jolie. I also thought about what do I ask someone who has expressed himself in so many ways through film, poetry, music, books and presentations? What more can I share with all those who will read this article about someone that hasn’t already been shared by people such as Robert Redford, Val Kilmer, Jackson Browne, Wilma Mankiller, Bonnie Raitt, and Kris Kristoferson?
I decided to approach the interview from a personal way. Since John Trudell has been and continues to be an inspiration to me and countless others, I simply shared my gratitude for the profound impact he has had upon me and the younger generations. I also shared that my observation is that his influence continues to grow and thread through multiple generations. That’s where we started and then our conversation blossomed into John generously sharing insights that are more necessary now than ever before, which I am humbled and honored to share with you.
Over the past twenty-three years I have worked with countless young people who were listening to music that spoke of violence and the degradation of women, and then I introduced them to your work, and it resonated with them. Your music awakened something deep within the young people, moving them into a more conscious state, which transferred to their daily lives. Your art has changed the thought process and artistic expression of countless young people. How does it make someone like you feel to know your work has inspired multiple generations with such a positive influence?
First of all, I’m very surprised. When I first started doing this, going through the poetry, music, performances part of my life, this was back in the early eighties. What I wanted to do was I wanted to see if I could kind of influence the next generation and the community to look into the arts and the culture as a way of expression versus the political activist way of expression. I felt that through our culture and our art we could express the truth, authenticity, and reality of who we are. Through the political activism, it was a different set of rules. We had to play by political activist rules which didn’t always reflect the authenticity of who we were and what we were trying to say. So, I started writing and I was around music and decided to put it together to see if some kind of influence could happen. The other part of it was that I had been through traumatic parts of my life by then, and rather than going to rage and violence, the poetry and music were my outlets. Those were the two things that were happening at that time. I just started making my music, putting it on cassettes and eventually CDs and putting it out in the world the best that I could. To this day I don’t know how much of it really went out. And I never really kept track of it. Now it’s thirty years later, and to hear what you’re saying, that it has influenced young people to any degree, I’m happy to hear it, but I’m also surprised that it turned out this way. I am happy it turned out this way, because I wanted to make sense with what I was doing. And this tells me that maybe I really was making some sense, so I feel really good about that.
What you do makes a lot of sense to many people. Hearing your work for the first time was like an alarm clock. In 1992, I remember it ignited something inside me, and every word, expression, and message you shared took things like traumatic events and transformed them into something beautiful. John, you showed us a way to convert poisons to healing medicines and I’m grateful for that, as are countless others. I am grateful to you for that gift.
I’d like to take credit, but it just happened. I headed in a direction and I’m just glad it had this kind of a result, because sometimes I just do what I have to do and I don’t necessarily have a larger understanding of it, but when I hear what you say about this type of influence I’m happy to hear it, because my intention was to have an influence through the culture and art rather than through the politics.
Since the tagline for the Good Men Project is: “We’re having a conversation that no one else is having”, if we’re going to do that then we have to start asking questions that no one else is asking. Since you started thirty years ago, you encapsulated important expressions, perspectives, thoughts, and questions that sparked many to ask better questions. Do you have any thoughts about what are some questions that few people are asking but should be?
I never thought about it in terms of what questions people should be asking. I think what we need to look at during these times and it doesn’t matter our age, yet it does matter our age, because the younger generation is going to be here for a longer period of time, so they’ve got to deal with what the older generation has created. I think that needs to be looked at as clearly as possible. And I think when we’re looking at it, we really need to look at our need to trust our intelligence, and to use our intelligence clearly and coherently to see our way through dealing with what we have to deal with.
We shouldn’t use our intelligence emotionally to make decisions, and then have emotional reactions because we’re just frustrated, because then we have that frustrated energy.To use our intelligence to make emotional decisions only keeps the confusion and chaos active, and then the confusion and chaos within our own mind remains active. We really need to understand how to think our way through things and to trust ourselves, to use our intelligence clearly and coherently, and to like ourselves.
There’s no reason not to like ourselves. When we understand that it’s okay to like ourselves, it makes it easier to trust ourselves and to use our intelligence with clarity and coherency. With everything that’s going on in the world right now, to deal with the reality of power and our individual relationship to power as human beings is through our intelligence. It’s not through the political system, economic system, religious system, military system, or the nationalistic system. Those are about things of authority. The reality of our relationship to power is in how clearly and coherently we use our intelligence, our creative mind.
An example of the power of our creative mind through our intelligence is to think about, have you ever felt powerless? And when we’re feeling powerless, how bad can we make ourselves feel? Through our fears, doubts, insecurities, angers, and frustrations, how bad can we make ourselves feel? And how does that effect the people we interact with? That’s power. That’s the power we create when we focus our creative mind on these things. If we focus our creative mind on lack of self-worth and frustration then we will generate power in that kind of way and that’s what spreads; it stays in us and then it spreads to the people we interact with. It’s obvious that we have power yet we fall into these mindsets believing that we’re powerless. That’s a chaotic, incoherent use of our intelligence that has been programmed into us.
Now, think if we liked ourselves, and understand it’s okay to like ourselves. Maybe we don’t like everything we’ve done, but it’s okay to like ourselves, and to understand and use the gift of our intelligence to see clearly and coherently. Then we will generate clarity and coherency to the people we interact with. See, that’s power. That’s the power that the colonizing state does not want us to recognize, and that’s all of us. It doesn’t want any of the people it claims as citizens to recognize the reality of their power. I think things like this need to be thought about, and then we let that help us figure out how we’re going to go, because in the end it boils down to we’re never going to outfight the oppressor without becoming the oppressor, but the reality is we can out think them, but they don’t want us to understand that. We’ve been programmed to not like ourselves and to react emotionally with our angers and frustrations, which doesn’t allow us to think and see clearly so they can maintain the situation.
John paused for a moment, and right when I was about to ask him what he thinks a good man is, he answered the question without me having to ask.
We need to look at number one, we’re human beings. Looking at our intelligence and our creative abilities I think it’s important that we identify as human beings before we do as any race, gender, class, or any other thing. The being part of human being is where our energy comes from, our spirit. It’s important that we identify as human beings, very important. Too many times we’ll hear people make the mistake and say, “Well I’m only human.” That tells me that they’re only operating with half of their identity. They’re not recognizing the total of who they are. Our primary identity is that we are a human being. That’s where our power comes from, but if we can’t recognize we are human beings we can’t recognize the reality of our power and what our power is for. My race is a part of my identity, it’s not the bulk of my identity, because my identity is I am a human being.
Race and culture is a part of the identity but we no longer identify as human beings, we identify as the race part or the gender part. Identifying as a human being is the way it was with our ancestors.
We need to see ourselves and recognize ourselves, because whatever the problems is that we are confronted with, whatever it may be, a personal problem, society problem, generational problem, whatever the problem is, the solution is about the energy we put into it. Life is about energy. Everything is about energy. Thinking is energy. Everything is about energy in this reality that we live in. Life is about the energy that we put into it.
When we think, we’re projecting radio magnetic waves of energy, an electrical pulse, we generate that. We need to think about things like this. We need to recognize our intelligence as a part of our spiritual identity. If we’re going to give thanks in any kind of way to Creator, we need to thank Creator for our intelligence, not just life, but for our intelligence. We should give daily thanks to Creator for our intelligence because then it helps us to remember our intelligence. How do we show respect for Creator? How do we show thanks for the things we say we respect if we don’t show respect to our intelligence? These are things that need thinking about as the things in life unfold in front of us, because what I see coming in this material aspect of the world, I see hard times coming, and the younger generation is going to have to carry the heavier burden. I think the best way the younger generation is going to have to deal with things is with the clear use of their intelligence. When you have a problem it needs a solution. The energy that we take and put into the solution is the energy that’s going to be in that solution. If fear-anger are used in the solution then the solution is going to have fear-anger in it, and therefore we didn’t change anything.
John, what you just shared brought to mind a question you asked us in your CD, Through The Dust from the track Becomes Apparent. You ask,
“In Creator’s eyes we are sacred
In man’s eyes we are bad
Whose eyes are we going to listen to?”
Through his heartfelt laughter he expressed happiness and some surprise that I listened to the CD. I reminded him that as a fan, supporter, and someone who is deeply impacted by his work, of course I listened to the CD. I’ve listened and will continue to listen to all of his CDs. John’s heartfelt laughter is contagious, so for a moment we laughed together. When the laughter subsided he went on to expound upon the question within his song, Becomes Apparent.
As a human being, we should be respecting our intelligence as part of our spirituality. As a human being it’s important to recognize reality and not to judge it. When we use our intelligence to recognize what’s going on we have the opportunity to really see what’s going on, but when we use these frustrations of low self-esteem and anger and things like that to judge what’s going on, we can’t recognize what’s happening, because we can’t see beyond the judgments. It’s like putting on blinders. It’s important as human beings to recognize what’s going on and not to judge it, because the judging limits what we see, causes us to judge ourselves, and we will always judge ourselves harshly. I think it’s important to think about that.
I also think it’s important to think about the difference between thinking and believing. When we think we’re projecting electromagnetic energy into the universe. Our energy is flowing when we think. We’re using our energy to find clarity to see when we’re thinking. We have been colonized in such a way as to judge and to believe. I think we need to think about this because to believe means we’re taking the energy of thinking that should be flowing and putting it in a psychological container. When we believe we stop thinking. We were given intelligence to think all the time. When we believe and stop thinking, this energy is still there, but because we psychologically put it in a container this energy is not allowed to flow, but this energy continues to grow because it’s energy. Contained with no place to go, it erupts through the stresses of our fears, insecurities and our emotional outbursts. Whatever is going on and however we approach it, we as human beings need to start thinking about the energy that is in it and the energy that we bring to it. There are no quick fixes, but when use our intelligence as clearly and coherently as possible, that energy we put out will attract other like minds who understand and create more solutions. If we’re just projecting energy from chaos and confusion then we will attract those things back to us, as we spread it.
The time with John went by quickly, but I had to ask about his latest CD, Through The Dust, and when we can expect to enjoy more projects from him.
I want to do more recording. You mentioned Through The Dust, and that album is different from all my other albums. A friend of mine from Switzerland, a young rapper recorded me. I did cold readings, and he took the readings and layered all the music around it. He did it on his own, and that’s how that one got out. So I didn’t know exactly what to expect when we agreed to do this, but I like what he did and I like that style.
It came out excellent. Did that project spark a thread for some future projects you’re working on?
I have an album that’s almost finished. It has to be sequenced and packaged, and it should be released sometime in the beginning of 2015.
John, thank you for continuing to be willing to give, especially in times where many are intent to destroy and take because I believe that through your voice and music you show us that inter-generational healing is stronger than inter-generational trauma.
If we allow it to be, and that’s what it takes, is for us to allow it to be that way. When we allow it to be that way with our relationship through intelligence and our reality through ourselves as human beings, and to like ourselves.
John Trudell’s books, music, and documentary are available through every major outlet. For the most up to date information about John Trudell, or to book him for concerts, speaking engagements, and special appearances please visit his website www.johntrudell.com