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Trudell: 'We Need to Start Thinking Like Human Beings'

John Trudell has a message for Indian country: 'We need to reclaim our identities as human beings to survive whatever the future is bringing.'

You can learn a lot about a man in an hour-long conversation, particularly if you don't allow yourself to get bogged down by all the wouldas, couldas, shouldas or any of your other preconceived notions. Such is the case with John Trudell. To many, he is a poet and philosopher, and overall, just a deep thinker. But he tries, hard, not to label himself. "I don't know how to describe myself," he says. "To me, I'm just me. Know what I mean? I'm me. I do what I do. Do I think? Yeah, I think. I think a lot. Do I write? Yeah, I write a lot. I go out and speak a lot. But those are things that I do. But, I don't identify myself as poet or a thinker ... not as my identity. I'm just me, John Trudell. I write, I have a band, I make albums. These are all things that I do. But, I don't call them my identity. Now, let's say because we need labels and we need a way to identify ourselves, I'll basically list myself as a writer, as an occupation. But my identity is John Trudell. I'm a human being. There was a time in my life when I was a political activist. There was a time when I was a militant, or whatever. There was a time when I was an actor. These are things that I did. But my identity is I'm just me. I'm a human being."

Trudell, the musician, has been busy on the music front. His band Bad Dog is due to release their latest CD, Wazi's Dream, later this summer. "It's being manufactured now," he explains. "It'll be ready in about a month. That's the main thing, artistically, work-wise. I don't know how to describe what I do. I say it's rock-blues. And, it's mixing of poetry and singing and music. I write all the lyrics. And then I speak them, I don't sing them -- but everybody in my band is a singer, so we have singing. It's difficult for me to describe, but it's based around poetry." He has been busy collaborating with others, as well. "I wrote a song with A Tribe Called Red. And this band, The Pines, outta Minnesota. I finished writing a song with them. And I'm looking at writing a song with Scatter Their Own and Cody Blackbird, at some point. Bad Dog is who I really work with, but I've gotten some opportunities to work with different artists, so I'm doing it because I enjoy it. Anytime I can get this stuff out there, put to music, I enjoy it."

John Trudell mural by Gregg Deal

Trudell says there is no process to his writing -- it all just sort of happens: "I go through periods of time where I write quite a bit, and I go through periods where I don't write very much. But when I do write, when that does happen, a couple of lines will come into head; what I'll call the hook lines, I guess. So I'll write them down and I'll just find another line to go with those two, and I'll look for another line to go with those three. And that's what I do -- I just add to it, line by line, with no real idea where I'm going. It all starts on the hook. In a way, that is a process. I think it's kinda like beadwork and painting, you know -- you meditate and think. It's a lot of time, so you're creating. I think writing is habit-forming, energetically speaking. It's calming, it's a balancing of my energies. During the periods where I'm writing a lot, I do that every day. And, when I'm in a slow time, I'm rolling with that. I don't have a problem with that. I look at that like it's replenishing the well. That seems to be how it's worked for the last 30 - 35 years." 

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Time passes, people change -- for Trudell, this is an important artistic phenomenon. "I see an evolution of thought, and an evolution of communication," he says. "I wouldn't want to be writing the same thing, now, as I did thirty years ago. I wouldn't want to be the same as I was thirty years ago. For me, it doesn't fit because I am not the same as I was thirty years ago. I've had a whole lifetime of experiences. I want that to show in my art -- I knew when I started I wanted there to be an evolution. Because I know how limited I was when I started out as a writer. It's like our ideas and our attitudes. We have these perceptions, let's say when we're in our 20s that by the time we get to our 40s or 50s, our whole attitude has changed. We've lived and we've learned things."

He hopes to publish another book this year, and offered some thoughts about what's been on his mind recently. "I think that we as Native people need to be very careful," Trudell says. "I think as Native people we need to be careful about how we identify ourselves. I think we really need to look into ourselves, and start identifying as human beings. And, start thinking like human beings. Because whatever's coming politically and economically and socially, it's bringing more hard times for everybody. And when I look at Native Country, I see high teenage suicide and the poverty and the violence. You see all the negative parts of the statistics, and it seems to be spreading more. We need to look at the respect, and it ain't enough to just say it. We really need to look at, and understand, responsibility. We can say these things, and we say them all the time. But, we really need to understand it and incorporate it into our daily living. When I see the chaos and madness going on in this world, I think for us as Native people, we need to reclaim our memories. We need to reclaim our identities as human beings to survive whatever the future is bringing. I'm an old man now. Counting womb-time, I'm 70. I'm on my way out, and I don't have a problem with that -- that's natural. But when I look at my descendants or young people, I just kinda think we have to reclaim our memory. The genocide of civilization is there to erase that memory -- we don't remember we're human beings anymore. That's why there's all the false prides. That's why there's the drug use, the alcoholism. Those are symptoms of it. It's the genocide itself. It's denied itself. It's the genocide that's created these conditions. We've forgotten that we're human beings, and we're passing this diseased perception of reality amongst ourselves. We really need to look at who we are. It's not enough to say that 'I'm a traditionalist.' It's not enough to say 'I can speak the language.' It's not enough to say 'We're all about respect.' It's not enough anymore. We have to understand what we're saying. We have to understand tradition, culture, sharing, love. That's the way it was a long time ago. That was our way of life. We looked out for each other. But, that's when we remembered who we were. Fast-forward to now: there's more carnage from the poverty and the racism than there is cohesiveness. We need to use our intelligence clearly and coherently as human beings, rather than to use our intelligence emotionally as victims. It's all in how we perceive reality."

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Trudell goes on speak on Native issues in regards to the educational system. "I find the term 'diversity' interesting because it's been around for a while as a solution to the problems we're confronted with. It's like language as an illusion. They're still programming the same old genocidal perception of reality. There's no diversity of what we're learning. The problem we're confronted with is the educational system itself, and it is the structure of the economic system itself. That's the problem. When we talk about diversity for these other things, it's really kind of meaningless. In the whole spectrum of diversity, they mean the ones that they're going to able to fit into the system to make it run as it is. But the situation is what it is. The best thing that we can do is bring as much clarity as we can because it's institutionalized. The institutions don't really get it -- they're going to do it the way that serves their purposes, not the way that serves our purposes. The thing about creating these courses in Native American history and how they're approaching it, they can't tell the truth. So, they gotta come up with these things because they can't really tell the truth about what happened. They can create noble images of us, or they can create the noble red man or the victims of genocide, and this and that, but they don't even really get into that. They talk about treaties. In reality, they can't tell the truth because they don't know what the truth is. So when they're going to do Native history, the best we're going to get in any institution is a certain degree of actual truth and history. There's a basic truth to what happened -- but they're not going to teach it. They're not. The history of the Native Americans is: they were victims of a racist mentality that is still prevalent. Even though people want to pretend that it's not. Hey, man, I don't want to say that it's all bad because I know there are many Native programs where real information is being given. But when you look at the institution of education itself, it's not allowed to really tell the truth. It has to be revised to fit the needs of the civilization. It's all done on purpose. It's designed to be this way -- that's the deal, for us as Native people, America being what it is. America's objective has always been to take what is ours. It has not changed, and it will not change; to take what does not belong to them. I think when we talk about Native history, we need to take it upon ourselves to communicate the truth the best that we can. But I don't have an answer to it. I don't have a solution. It always comes back to: we have to think our way through this. You know, we just gotta out-think them. We have to really think like human beings. And, just accept the reality of now. And, the reality of now is that the system is unfair, and it's not gonna be fair. This system is designed to exploit and oppress. That's the way this civilization is built. That's what makes it run. So we need to recognize that -- I think when we recognize it, and really understand that, that we will think more clearly about how to deal with things. But the system is designed to oppress and exploit, and a part of that is it's designed in such a way that it offers hope. You know what I mean? It offers hope that maybe you can change it. But the deal is -- you can't. The way things stand right now, we can't. I'm not saying that at some point we won't be able to change it. But the way things stand right now, we can't, because we're not thinking clearly right now. We're emotionally traumatized and reactive. We need to get past the emotional trauma stuff, and really understand the value of our intelligence."

John Trudell speaking in August 2014. Photo by Jason Morgan Edwards.

For Trudell, passion and purpose are innate -- as natural as breathing. "With my lifestyle, sometimes I'm really, really busy," he says. "And other times, not too busy. I'm here. I was born into this dimensional reality, y'know. I gotta do something while I'm here, on my way to leaving. I have a certain appreciation. Everything is what it is. But, there's still a spirit in this world. There's still spirit here in the nature, here in the life. I'm not saying I'm the spiritual holy-holy, because I'm not. But, I feel a spiritual relationship to life, even during the darkest times. I guess maybe that's what it's all about. You get up the next day and you do what you gotta do. So I just try to make as much sense as I can to myself on a daily basis. I'm here. I'm alive. So, I'm gonna live it the best that I can. That's my everyday motivation. I make it up as I go along sometimes."

"We can ask questions. We can talk to people to get the information that comes in the form of answers. But, in the end, we have to define our own answers. That's just what I think about life. Because my answers are unique to me as my experience. If I do come up with answers that make sense, that's cool. I want to make sense. Reality is, we have to find our own answers."