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About The daily Nebraskan. ([Lincoln, Neb.) 1901-current | View Entire Issue (April 7, 1999)
With a scarred history and shaky faith, John Trudell speaks to America
By Christopher Heine
American Indian performer John Trudell is
after die same thing he wanted back when he was
burning American flags in the 1970s.
Furthermore, the former political activist will
perform his expressive and educational set of spo
ken-word poetry with his band, Bad Dog, tonight
at 8 p.m. in the University of Nebraska’s student
“I feel the need to express my opinions,” he
said. “When people come in contact with my
music or speaking, the real objective is to get them
to think and feel.”
His performance will be part of the Great
Plains Music and Dance Symposium, a weeklong
festival sponsored by the University of Nebraska
Lincoln’s Center for Great Plains Studies. Bad
Dog will be performing tonight with up-and-com
ing South Dakota-based blues act Indigenous.
Trudell, of Santee Sioux heritage, has plenty of
experiences to draw from and convey in his art.
Although his performances have been described
as optimistic, die brunt of his most powerful expe
riences seem to be unfortunate, and at times tragic.
He grew up in various Omaha communities
and on the Santee Indian Reservation in northeast
Nebraska. Trudell said he preferred the close-knit,
extended family-like atmosphere of the reserva
tion over any other place he spent his childhood.
However, tiiat didn’t shield him from the cruel
ties a minority could suffer from the outside world.
“The outside was pretty racial against us,”
Trudell said. “The name calling by the white kids
and the legal system. I remember that those things
were just the way life was.*’
As an adult, he rose to prominence as a polit
ical activist and became chairman of the American
Indian Movement in 1973.
During his following six years of leadership,
demonstrations were not out of the ordinary for
Trudell. For instance, he burned a U.S. flag in front
of the J. Edgar Hoover building in Washington,
D.C., in February 1979.
Less than 24 hours later, his wife and children
were burned to death in a fire at the Shoshone
Paiute Reservation in Nevada.
Grieving and dismayed, Trudell left the politi
cal arena and his position within a short time of the
suspicious death of his family.
Throughout a 45-minute conversation, the
poet never mentioned the tragic incident; but at
one point seemed to make a mental reference
to it when asked why he left activism.
“It got pretty rough for a while there,”
Trudell said with a hint of pain-stricken
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to be a performance artist first
and foremost, it seems he is
continuing his activism
through music, words and art
Trudell said no matter if
his intentions with Bad Dog
are artistic or political or both,
“everything is about commu
nowever, ne seems 10 oe
enjoying his role in the last
two decades more than his
political one of the ’70s.
“For me it’s more real,” he '
said. “I don’t have to worry
about toeing a party line. This is
the way to communicate more
Impressively enough, Trudell’s
expressive talents aren’t limited to
poetry and music.
The poet has published two books, including
“Living In Reality” in 1981. He has also acted in
films such as “Incident at Oglala” and
Longtime colleague and fellow activist Faye
Brown saidTrudell became a performer as ifby an
“It just emerged from who he is,” she said.
“He’s had to deal with some hard reality; he’s real
ly been on die front lines.”
Like the image of a great, spirited warrior that
enriches American Indian history, Trudell has
obviously carried on his mission of expressing his
ideas bravely and successfully through his band.
After all, it couldn’t be easy going around knowing
the F.B.I. has a 17,000-page file on his activities.
However, Trudell has been releasing cassette
tapes and compact discs since the early. 1980s. His
early work featured native drum sounds, but has
recently moved to using contemporary instru
ments such as keyboard and electric guitar more
Over the last decade, he has worked with rock
’n’ roll legend Bonnie Raitt, as well as the Indigo
Furthermore, Trudell’s first mainstream
release, “A.K.A. Graffiti Man,” was called by the
venerable lyricist Bob Dylan the best album of
1985. Trudell said his new album, “Blue Indian,” is
getting prepared for release on a yet-to-be-named
record label owned by songwriter Jackson
Recently, Trudell’s band has been using an
unorthodox method of making rock ’n’ roll, as it
performs without bass and drums. Bad Dog will
perform songs from “Blue Indian” that are com
posed around the use of two guitars.
Brown, of the Minneapolis-based organization
Honor The Earth, said she believes Trudell and
Bad Dog have unique power.
Focus on the Festival
A week-long look at highlights of the
Great Plains Music and Dance Festival
AahmpI D pa uittui
What: John Trudell and the Bad Dogs with
Where: Centennial Ballroom, Nebraska
When: 8 p.m. tonight
Cost: $5 for students, $10 general
The Skinny: Former political activist comes
home to Nebraska with a spoken word,
electric guitar performance
“A synthesis happens that you don’t sort out,
you just feel its power,” she said. “His poetry
affects the tempo of the music and it all has its own
rhythm. It’s magical really.”
Brown said she has worked with Trudell on
many activist-oriented projects. She said he has
the talents as a speaker to broaden people’s hori
zons and break things down to a universal, human
“Given the state of the world as we approach
the new century, we need messengers like John to
touch people,” Brown said. “He has the ability to
reach across race and gender. He’s someone who
can touch everyone.”
Whether rich, poor, black, brown,or white,
Trudell says different cultures have a lot to learn
from one another. By the 53-year-old’s account,
his music sounds as if it is a hybrid testament to
“Sometimes we use contemporary harmonies
and at other times Native harmonies,” he said.
“We’re using the modem music to imitate the old
music. We’re taking the two musical identities and
giving them equality, so to speak.”
Trudell discussed his views about American
culture to great philosophical extent; he said it was
in a funk of materialism, a situation that he
described as an “identity crisis.”
“Generally speaking, sometimes I feel like
we live in a reality that we don’t know who we
I are any more,” he said. “We don’t even know the
| language we’re speaking. It’s because of this
I major identity crisis that society is in the Condi
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evolving into a nation more interested in
PlayStations than ancestry and spirituality,
I Trudell believes something is being lost
“The terms we use, whether (Americans)
are German; Dutch or Native American,
Catholic or atheist, we don’t know what any of
those mean any more,” he said.
In his music, Trudell certainly comes across
as someone who understands who he is and where
he is from. For instance, his monotone, spoken
word vocal style and his past innovative mix of
native drum sounds and electric instruments give
weight to his confidence as an artist
He sounds as if he knew what he wanted from
the beginning of his career in the arts. It was what
he has wanted during his activist days of the ’70s.
“I came to distrust politics because I think they
get in the way of communication,” Trudell said. “I
think through culture and art I can more effective
ly communicate about the reality of who we are.”
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