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Still confronting: Interview with John Trudell - Shape-shifting from politics as culture to culture as politics

Part three

Editors’ note: In a running conversation with Indian Country Today Senior Editor Jose Barreiro, John Trudell seeks to address lingering issues in the dissolution of the early American Indian Movement. In this final segment of the series, Trudell addresses his own shift from direct political activities to musical poetics of stage and film.

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Indian Country Today: As pressing as the issues raised early by AIM continue to be, the revolution in the arts and culture beckoned you. Serious change, or continuity?

Trudell: I think that the activist period served its time. It lasted as long as it was supposed to. It played a purpose. It fulfilled its purpose and then life shape-shifted for us. And I think that’s healthy and the way it should be because when you look at the activism, the political activism days, it’s not our political system. So I look at our political activism period and we did the best we could with what we had, and it was a necessary thing to happen because I think the main accomplishment out of that time was it rekindled the spirit of the Native people. It just kind of reignited our spirit, our identity, just something about us. I think that’s the true lasting impact.

ICT: An awakening.

Trudell: Yes. It’s like the spirit was starting to ember and all of a sudden here were these sparks, and now it’s a flame.

ICT: It did do that.

Trudell: It did do that and I think that in the long run that’s the real reason and purpose it happened. But our political activist movement was meant to self-destruct because, basically, we were only men, and we were the ones that got us into whatever we got into. The men were the ones in the end that made the decisions the women weren’t allowed to make. But because we were only men, and this is just my observation, we had our frailties and our weaknesses and all this stuff so we did the best that we could with who we were and what we had.

ICT: It had to evolve.

Trudell: For me, the whole idea is that the political activism movement shape-shifted and that change is healthy. And I’m not trying to put down anybody doing the political activist work that needs to be done because it needs to be done. But the difference is that is we took political activism on as an identity, and I’m saying don’t take it on as an identity. Just recognize it’s a job that has to be done; but don’t take that on as your identity, because when you take on the identity as a political activist then you view life only from the perception of being a political activist, which is not necessarily objective or productive.

ICT: It’s limited, although more action-oriented.

Trudell: Yes, and for us as a people, we need to be expanding these other consciousnesses and this other thinking.

ICT: You were talking earlier about belief and knowing.

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Trudell: Well, I find belief, the word, it’s an interesting word. I mean, all words have power and we can’t use this word and mean that word because each word makes its own sound in a vibratory reality so each word has its own meaning. But belief is a word that I get very concerned about because I hear so much – people saying I believe this, I believe that. Well, to me it’s like if we believe it, it means we don’t know. And I think that we are playing a mind game with ourselves, not deliberately – we’ve been programmed with this misuse of sound, words, language, we’ve been programmed with the misuse so it keeps us confused. But to be realistic about it, if I believe this, that means that I don’t know, I just believe it. Political action based just on belief can be confusing.

ICT: This is where the cultural work comes in. You consciously made that shift from, I would say you’ve been called this before, a messianic voice, you made a shift from an oppositional activist to U.S. policies toward Indians to a voice that messages through an artistic medium.

Trudell: Well, for me, I’m continuing to go into what you call the culture or the art thing. I got forcefully put out of my political reality and in the course my current life I am having to define reality almost from the beginning again because it is a new reality. I started writing, for instance, not consciously, this just happened, but I made a conscious decision that I would follow the writing because I was looking for something to hold onto and then the writing comes and I hang onto these lines. They’re lines, and I can hang onto them, so that was my reasoning and I’m going to go with where that takes me. But in the course of that it helped me to have an understanding again about political activism. It helped me to have an understanding that for us as a people maybe the best way to express our realities is through our culture and our art, because that’s us.

ICT: Art can change us more than politics?

Trudell: The politics belong to somebody else so it’s likely to never synchronize with us; but again, our culture and our art – that’s us. That’s the reality of who we are, and it is only through this way that we can truly speak our truths. We couldn’t do it through the politics because you had to compromise your truths or deny them to get things done. But through our culture and our art we can speak our truths. We can express the reality of who we are and how we feel and how we see. And this communication and expression of reality I think is very important for us collectively as a people because it is some kind of a bonding. It’s some kind of a joining, communion almost in a way.

ICT: A shared reality, from the inside out.

Trudell: It is. When you look out and you look at the distortion going on in the outside reality – and I call that distortion pain – there’s a tremendous amount of pain going on and we see it in our own little realities and I think expression through the arts is some kind of dealing with that pain. We show the realities of who we are because it helps us to feel less isolated. And in a way that’s what I see coming out of the culture and the art, and yet at the same time we’re being real. And for our community, that’s what we need. We need to redefine reality again, in some instances because we’ve got to get past the romanticism about the way it was.

ICT: Hard to think clearly if you romanticize.

Trudell: There’s a lot of confusion in our reality right now. I think we need to remember tradition is based upon respect. And they may mess with the ceremonies and the language and all of that because that’s the way this attack comes against us, but in reality tradition is based on respect. No matter what the culture is, true indigenous tradition is based upon respect and I think we really need to think about that and remember that as we fight and struggle to hang onto our traditions, because sometimes in our fight and struggle to hang onto our traditions we forget that – the tradition of respect. We pretend that our own righteousness justifies whatever action we take.

ICT: The message that you are putting out in your work right now – how is it coming back to you? What are you getting back from your audiences?

Trudell: I get a positive energy back. I think in terms of energy. To me, everything is about energy. Everything. I mean, our conversation, everything is about energy. So when I go out and do my stuff, whatever my stuff is, it’s really about trying to communicate this energy. Language is a sound and this and that and all, but it’s mainly about communicating an energy. And almost consistently the energy that comes back to me these days is healthy.

ICT: How do you use words to create that energy?

Trudell: We’re in a vibratory reality, right? I mean, really, and we are. And it’s like, so a word, what’s a word? It has its meaning and definition, but you go to another level and in another dimension of reality a word is a sound that has its own vibratory thing. So it’s how you use the sounds to synchronize the energy.

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