In the Spirit of John Trudell

I had recently bought the newest CD release by John Trudell, titled Wazi’s Dream, but had not yet gotten around to listening to it when I heard the news online that the Native American activist/poet/truth teller did not have much longer to live. Prayers were going around for him, and a few days later on December 8, he departed for the spirit world at age 69.

His voice on the new CD now coming through my stereo speakers, right after his passing, seemed to cast things in a new light for me. It really felt for the first time like it was not him personally, but rather his spirit that was now doing the talking.

Coming from the Santee Dakota nation in the United States, John Trudell had a lot to say about First Nations issues and I was among many who had listened to him. I knew that he had helped organize the occupation of the former prison at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay starting in late 1969 to call urgent attention to Native issues; it was Trudell who had set up a broadcast from the island called “Voice of Alcatraz” and got the word out to the wider public through a local radio station. Trudell was a person who was good with words and could communicate naturally to an audience. Check out this interview by local Bay Area media around the time of the Alcatraz occupation to see what I mean.

Trudell served as the national chairman of the American Indian Movement from 1973 to 1979, some of the group’s most active and visible years. Trudell withdrew from AIM activities for a while after that and eventually made his way into musicians’ circles on the U.S. West Coast. Though not a trained musician, through music and spoken word recordings Trudell would find a way to keep his voice out there for the people to hear for the rest of his days.

Listen to a spoken word recording he put out just a few years ago, DNA — Descendant Now Ancestor, and you’ll see what I mean. He was a natural communicator and a serious spiritual thinker.

I always paid close attention to what Trudell had to say, ran his words and ideas over and over in my mind, thought about how they might apply to my own life. He had an influence on the way I viewed things, to be sure.

He talked about the difference, for example, between believing and thinking: Believing (which, he noted, contained the word “lie” within it) is a passive, almost mindless action, while thinking is an active, forward-moving action that makes you mentally challenge things. After hearing Trudell break it down like that, I never again used the words “I believe that…” or “I believe in…” to get my point across. That holds true even today. For me, it’s always “I think” or “My thought on that is…”.

Trudell also drew a clear distinction between power and authority. Authority, he maintained, was some entity outside of us that exerts control over our lives, such as the government, police, military, corporations, etc. Power, on the other hand, is something that is inside of us: will power, for instance, or mental and spiritual power. Power in its very purest form, Trudell pointed out, was something within each of us that we could tap into at any time — the power of life, the power of the universe, in other words. And once again, after thinking that concept through deeply, I came to understand what he was getting at. I am now much more careful in my own thinking and writing when dealing with any issues involving “the powers that be” or “centers of power” in society. True power indeed comes from within; authority is something that comes from outside.

A 2007 documentary film about him, titled Trudell, tells his story much better than I ever could. Check out the full film here or get a copy of the DVD for yourself and listen to what this man had to say. Likewise, I encourage you to listen to the various recordings he made over the years. His voice was, in many ways, the voice of us all.

“I’m just a human being trying to make it in a world that is very rapidly losing its understanding of being human,” Trudell used to say. Well, he’s in another world now, having left us to make sense of this world we’re still in. I honor the spirit of brother John Trudell, in both his past journey among us and his current journey beyond us, knowing that somehow we haven’t yet heard the last of him.

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