For the August, 1992 issue of High Times, John Trudell (1946-2015) spoke with Steve Bloom. In honor of what would have been Trudell’s 75th birthday on February 15, we’re republishing it below.
John Trudell was the chairman and chief spokesperson of the American Indian Movement (AIM) from 1973 to 1979. Born in Omaha in 1946, he grew up on the Santee Sioux reservation in Nebraska. Trudell was a major figure in the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee. Two years later, two FBI agents were killed on the Pine Ridge reservation. A pair of recent films attempt to document this tragic showdown. In Thunderheart, Trudell plays a character based on Leonard Peltier, who was found guilty of murdering the FBI agents. Incident at Oglala, a documentary produced by Robert Bedford, is a searing indictment of the government’s case against Peltier.
In 1979, while Trudell was away demonstrating in Washington, DC, his home on the Shoshone-Paiute reservation in Nevada burned down, killing his wife, children and mother-in-law. Trudell is convinced his family was murdered. Since then, he’s become a poet. In 1985, when he met guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, a Kiowan Indian from Oklahoma who had recorded with John Lennon, Trudell began putting his words to Davis’ music. The result was aka Grafitti Man, originally released in 1986 and recently reissued by Rykodisc with new material produced by Jackson Browne.
High Times: How would you compare Thunderheart and Incident at Oglala?
John Trudell: Thunderheart is the fictionalized account of the Incident at Oglala. The factual and fictional versions supplement each other. Both films communicate some type of a reality. Incident at Oglala focuses on one individual, Leonard Peltier, who definitely needs some justice. This film will bring awareness to many, many people—over a period of time. But what bothers me about that aspect of it is that Peltier should not have to wait inside a cage during that time.
HT: Is the evidence presented in Incident strong enough to reopen his case?
JT: The technical stuff about ballistics and changing firing pins is the made-up evidence that doesn’t really exist. This was very crucial in getting Leonard convicted. The prosecution violated the law when they made up that evidence. That’s what I would like people to understand. Yes, obviously understand the intensity of the conflict that the people were living under at that time— but in Leonard’s particular situation, there is no evidence to convict. That to me is the thing that really needs to be understood. But that on its own won’t get Leonard another trial.
HT: What do you think will?
JT: Sometimes I almost think it would take a political solution, because obviously the law doesn’t work. I’ll put it like this: Everyone saw the Rodney King verdict and everyone basically was outraged by it. Well, Peltier had the same kind of a verdict. But our numbers are not thirty million. So what needs to happen is for Leonard to get another opportunity. How this will come about as a result of the film I’m not sure.
HT: Are you in contact with him?
JT:I haven’t spoken to Leonard for quite a while.
HT: Regarding Rodney King and Los Angeles—what are your thoughts about the riot?
JT: I had just come back into town from central California when the verdict came and I was really upset by it. Then all of a sudden this activity started taking place on the streets. It made me feel good to know that someone still had feelings left, and they were acting on those feelings; they were not going to allow this lie to go quietly into the night. I think in many ways the people who made this rebellion may be acting for all Americans more than most Americans understand. I don’t think people understand what kind of license that jury in Simi Valley was issued.
HT: What’s your take on the media’s coverage of the rebellion?
JT: I saw intense mass mental manipulation going on. What was coming off the screens is that there were legitimate protesters, the ones who carried signs, and illegitimate protesters, the ones who burned and looted. To me, they were all protesters. You don’t make the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate. They created a criminal perception of a political act. This makes people friendlier to the police and the whole police-state idea. Personally, I had no problem with the people rebelling, but how do you burn down hell? There’s got to be another way to deal with it.
HT: Was rage a fair way to describe what happened?
JT: That’s the only thing I could see it as. Just plain old rage at giving the police the authority to use that level of violence just because they want to—that’s what this jury did. Peltier’s case is parallel to this. Darelle Butler and Bob Robideau, the other two men who were tried for the FBI shooting, were acquitted on the basis of self-defense by an all-white jury. You had citizens saying, “Yes, we can understand that you may need to defend yourself against the government, even in armed self-defense.” The government doesn’t want people thinking about that. That has a lot to do with Peltier being where he’s at now—they could not allow him to walk. So I can understand their rage.
HT: After the death of your family, did you channel your rage into poetry and music?
JT: I don’t know. I know I have known rage and I have known madness, but I don’t think at any point they’ve ever dominated my life. During the hardest times, I just followed what was in front of me. The writing came out of intensity that was much more than rage could ever hope to be. The writing took me into the world of music and I followed it there. Maybe in some ways it was my therapy.
HT: Do you still believe your family was assassinated?
JT: They were assassinated, yes. They were murdered.
HT: Is there any ongoing attempt to resolve that matter legally?
JT: All I would say about that is it will not pass. It will not disappear into the night. It’s passed silently for a time, but it’s not done.
HT: Can you explain the chronology of events in your recording career so far?
JT: The very first attempt at it was a tape we recorded in 1982 called Tribal Voice. I got with a traditional drum group led by a man named Quiltman. They did traditional songs and I did poetry with it. At that time I wanted to put the spoken word with the oldest musical form I could think of. After we had done that, I wanted to put the spoken word with the newest musical form—drum machines, electric guitars, things like that. I started the electric project in June ’85.
HT: When did you meet Jesse Ed Davis?
JT: I met Jesse in Long Beach on May 1, 1985. He told me his name and the second thing he told me was he could make music to my words. I’d been looking for someone who could do that. We had no conversation about this or anything—he just came up and told me this because he heard Tribal Voice. We decided to record on an eight-track. We had limited dollars to spend. So we made one song per session. We had X amount of colors to make a picture with. That picture turned out to be aka Grafitti Man.
HT: Have you recorded between then and now?
JT: Jesse and I recorded another album around December ’85, January and February ’86 called Heart Jump Bouquet, which conceptually was an acknowledgement to women. We released it on cassette the same way we did aka Grafitti Man. In 1987 I made another tape with Quiltman called …But This Isn’t El Salvador. That was the first time we mixed electric guitar in with the traditional drum. In 1990, I wrote and recorded Fables and Other Realities with Mark Shark. Mark is now the guitar player in the Grafitti Band. (Davis died of a drug overdose in 1988.]
HT: How did this new disc come about?
JT: A friend of ours, Kevin McCormick, had mentioned to Jackson [Browne] that Rykodisc might be interested in this album. It was through Jackson and his management that the connections were made and the discussions took place.
HT: Jackson Browne’s production gives you a fuller sound. How would you describe his contribution?
JT: Without Jackson none of this would’ve happened. He’s been my ally for years, since I started. He’s always been very encouraging and has been there when I needed someone; he’s always supported me in those kinds of ways. You can feel Jackson’s touch all over this album. His influences are all over it.
HT: Did you ask him or did he come to you?
JT: It was a little bit of both. I always expected that it would be him.
HT: Jackson sings backup on one song, and Kris Kristofferson is on a few others. Is he a friend too?
JT: Yeah. I was glad about that, too.
HT: Let me ask you about one particular lyric from the song “Somebody’s Kid”: “Dealer man is not dealing drugs because people do drugs, it’s so they will—a way of fixing them while they break/ As they run out of wishes and hope, he steps in with material and dope.”
JT: I make these distinctions about drugs, right? We start out human beings, right? And then there’s some sort of conversion that takes place that tries to turn us into citizens. One of the things I noticed is that, after that conversion, most citizens become junkies. Their junk is material—or it’s dope. Everybody’s addicted to something—it all has to do with some form of overconsumption to fill some kind of hole they feel inside of their soul. So when I’m talkin’ about junk man or dealer man, I’m talkin’ about this kind of behavior. Now when we come down to what we all perceive to be drugs, I don’t trust anything that’s got to go through the old laboratory. Plain and simply put, the cocaines and the heroins, the Valiums and the pills—all these chemical trips that people take to escape their own oppression—I think they are very deliberately spread amongst the people.
HT: How do you feel about marijuana?
JT: Let me say it like this: My DNA needs THC, OK? The things are not to be confused, because they weren’t confused in the beginning, when we were young in the sixties. The reality of it is the tribal peoples of the world have always used it in one form or another. If it was where they were at, they didn’t shy away from it. They understood the value of it. The problem with youth and marijuana is that people don’t really understand that it’s a medicine. They abuse it and then this fucks them up a little bit. It’s a nice high, a nice escape. I think if people understand that it’s a medicine and use it as they would medicine, then I think, yes, it’s not harmful for people.
HT: Is there a history of marijuana use among Native Americans? Does it go back into the heritage?
JT: I’m sure it does. I hear two sets of stories. From some people I hear, yeah, they used it and they’ll explain how it was used. Then I hear another set where people say no. The ones that generally deny that it was used have had heavy boarding-school education. The traditionalists know, you know? The people knew what all the plants were and what they represented. That’s part of what this was all about. They didn’t say, “I’m not gonna touch this plant because an oppressor is going to come someday in the future and make it illegal.”
HT: What is the role of tobacco in Native American culture?
JT: The role tobacco played in the ceremonies is: The smoke is what carries your prayers to the sky. The situation around tobacco in this time and place is that it’s chemically treated. I smoke cigarettes. But it’s a whole different trip being run down now. My attitude about it is there are some people who can smoke and other people who can’t. Just like some people can swim and some can’t.
HT: Back in the days when AIM started out, was marijuana use common among the warriors?
JT: Well, whatever was laid out there around the rest of the world was laid out around us, too [laughs]. We didn’t miss it. We didn’t pass it up or anything like that. There was a time and a generation when all these things were there. Different ones participated or experimented at whatever their levels were. It was there, it was part of the experience. We accepted it as a part of the experience, but it never really became the cause to us.
HT: Did it come to you from the hippie culture?
JT: The hippies got it later [laughs]. You have two types of activity going on in every community. There are those who condemn all of anything and then there are those who have the experience. During those days, those who were active got high however they got high—whether it was drinking or smoking or whatever, drugs like acid—because all that went on everywhere. Yet there was a segment of the community that didn’t condone any aspect of that. It’s like everywhere else.
HT: Do you miss those days?
JT: No. I don’t want to go back and do it over again. I’m surprised I made it this far. The idea and spirit and intent of what AIM represented just melted away into the communities. And it resurfaces now in various cultural things that are taking place within the communities themselves. It’s still there, it’s just too dangerous for Indian people to make that political structure, because our numbers are small and the government can hunt us down and kill us and do every violent deed it needs to in order to destroy that political voice—and no one really pays any attention. We’re evolved out of that hardcore centralized political voice into more autonomous cultural aspects. In the communities, the awareness is there and the people are speaking the truths as we have done through the years. From the political experience we had in the seventies and eighties to our own natural continued cultural experience, I think what’s happening is we’re just finding other ways to articulate these things.
HT: What about the radical activities of the Mohawk Nation in New York and Canada?
JT: They were in a situation where they had to make a statement and they did that. Here are these people trying to defend their territory; it’s been going on for a long, long time. Now that incident is gone from the public mind [except as] a memory of something that happened, but the people in that struggle are still going on.
HT: Do you expect more armed confrontations to happen?
JT: As far as there being rebellions and flare-ups, yes, that will always go on as long as the situation is as it is. You’ve got to let off the pressure sometimes. There are unacceptable things, but you can tolerate them. But sometimes the unacceptable reaches a point of no toleration and then something must be done. I’ve never considered our position to be a radical position. To want justice is not a radical idea. To want truth and fairness is not a radical idea. If I live in a society where those concepts are radical, then it even furthers my understanding that something’s got to be done.
HT: What’s the future for Native Americans all over the continent?
JT: For us, it gets no worse—it remains as it has always been. The Indian peoples’ future is one of oppression and basically on the verge of extinction. That’s the future I see if technologic America continues on its way. There’s a predator on the land and the predator is getting greedier and greedier, hungrier and hungrier. So I don’t assume our future is going to get better. And in some ways I don’t think it’s going to get worse. You’ve had genocide committed against you for five hundred years—what the fuck is worse? The ones who committed that genocide are not going to quit. We have to find a way that our spirit remains alive and our cultures function and continue the best that we can in these times. Nothing is settled yet. There’s political turmoil in this country. There are changes coming. The citizens of America, be prepared—they’ve got new hard times coming too. Maybe at some point in time we will see that we have common interests and, through those common interests, we can together make some type of a change.
HT: With movies like Dances With Wolves and Thunderheart, do you see people’s perceptions changing about Native American culture?
JT: You have all of these elements at play. People are more environmentally aware. That indicates there has to be more—in some kind of a way, even if it’s subtle—of an understanding of what the indigenous peoples have been saying. A part of the identity of indigenous peoples is their relationship with the land, with the Earth. The citizens’ relationship has always been through government. Let’s see what a little longer period of time will show us. because we do have certain things in common.
HT: For someone who has been through so many struggles you seem optimistic. Are you an optimist?
JT: The more clearly I can understand reality, the better I feel, because then I know what I’m dealing with. I don’t look at it as whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic. I just kind of look at it as the best I can interpret reality—that gives me a basis to see and do and act. They want us to surrender. That’s what this is all about—to set the mind to surrender: Break the spirit and get the mind to surrender.
HT: Who is the “us” you refer to?
JT: Every human being. This thing called technologic civilization wants every human being—it tries to break the spirit so the mind will surrender. We aren’t put here for that. Everything that happens in our life is a series of experiences. If we understand that, maybe we can truly learn something from those experiences. What I do know is that I come from a culture that is deeply rooted in the whole idea and reality of the continuation of life. And I’m dealing with another culture whose perception is a reality of death.
HT: The “back-to-the-land” movement of the sixties never quite materialized. What’s the alternative to the technologic society?
JT: The alternative is we need a different form of government and distribution of the resources. It’s not that there should be no technology. Technology is not the problem. The problem is the minds and weaknesses of man. Man has technology at his disposal—that’s the problem. Now, the tribes are all children of the Earth. The tribes live with the Earth to keep harmony and take care of the Earth. Civilization lives on the Earth to plunder and exploit the Earth. Technology and industry need to be tribalized so that they’re used to protect the Earth and keep a harmony with the universe. Then you can have technology. And everyone, under that idea and perception, can have their needs taken care of. Everyone would have access to what the technology has to offer. This is the tribal way. This is the way it has been. Use technology the way you used the resources you had before. That’s what’s at issue here.
HT: How do you keep close to the Earth living in Los Angeles?
JT: I never leave the planet, man [laughs]. So I keep close to it. I never leave it. I’m on it all the time.