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Dissenting Troubadour

Today John Trudell acts in movies and makes albums -- but the FBI once considered the American Indian activist one of the most dangerous social agitators in America.
 
 
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Any man who has a 17,000-page FBI file must be doing something right.

John Trudell earned most of his voluminous record as a leading activist for Native American rights in the tumultuous 1970s, when the federal government was attempting to squelch the movement's newfound passion and power. Involved in the Indian takeover of Alcatraz in 1969, Trudell quickly became a charismatic leader of the struggle. By 1972, he was the national chairman of the American Indian Movement (AIM), which he guided for seven years, through the sieges at Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee.

During that time, the FBI kept a close eye on Trudell. An excerpt from his file, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act in 1986, reads:

"Trudell is an intelligent individual and eloquent speaker who has the ability to stimulate people into action. Trudell is a known hardliner who openly advocates and encourages the use of violence [i.e., armed self-defense] although he himself never becomes involved in the fighting ...Trudell has the ability to meet with a group of pacifists and in a short time have them yelling and screaming 'right-on!' In short, he is an extremely effective agitator."

One afternoon in 1979, Trudell stood on the steps of the FBI building in Washington DC, delivered a rousing and angry speech. He burned an American flag to protest the agency's persecution of AIM.

The next morning, Trudell's entire family was killed in a house fire on the Shoshone Paiute reservation in Nevada. The fire was officially ruled an accident, and never criminally investigated.

Trudell believes the fire was deliberately set (he says strangers had warned him on at least two occasions that his family was in danger if he didn't give up his political activity). He won't say whether he thinks the FBI was solely responsible, but says, "Minimally, the FBI, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs conspired to cover up who did it and why."

Since that day 23 years ago, Trudell has channeled his anger and his social consciousness into his art -- poetry, music and acting. His latest album, "Bone Days," is outspoken and raw. Reviewers usually say Trudell's work "defies categorization," and it's true: the album is an amalgam of blues fusion, slam poetry, political polemic and tribal chanting. Hard to say what section to head to in your local music store, unless yours happens to have a bin labeled Other.

Trudell knows that an album like "Bone Days" must have a new context in a post-9/11 culture.

"I called the album 'Bone Days' because these are hard times -- there's not much meat for the meat eaters, you know? Hard economically, emotionally, physically. People are struggling. Terrorism isn't new. This has been going on for a long time, it goes on everyday. People in this world live terrified lives. They are terrified about making their rent payment, about feeding their children. America has been suffering a kind of spiritual terrorism for a long time.

"Maybe it's the outrageousness of the act in New York that makes it stand out. But then I have to ask myself: How did America get to be America? It killed women and children. It slaughtered us. And now they cry terrorism, " he says.

Such bluntness is pure Trudell: the final track on "Bone Days" unapologetically compares Indians to Jesus on the cross.

Trudell sees the Sept. 11 attacks as a calculated conspiracy, not just by a small sect of radicals, but of the invisible hand of globalism gone astray.

"This issue reaches into the New World Order, the WTO, GATT and the whole globalization movement. People need to think clearly about what's behind this, what is motivating it. They cannot allow themselves to be blindly led. Because right now they are looking for a specific terrorist. But in five years down the road, unions will be considered terrorist organizations because they are a threat to the economic well-being of America.

"In order to make economic globalization work, to make this new form of democracy work, everything has to fall into place. And you have to have consistency. If we have international structures that infringe on the sovereignty of nations, you also have to have, within those nations, an inhibition of the sovereignty of individuals. Of course, this is nothing new for the Indians. The American masses are becoming the new Indians. I've been here before."

"Bone Days" was produced by actress Angelina Jolie, who heard about Trudell through her mother, the Canadian activist and former supermodel Marcheline Bertrand. Trudell had no recording label, and no money to record the songs he'd been working on for years.

Jolie's support of the project surprises Trudell as much as anyone.

"If you are religious, you might call it a fucking act of God. You know the story of Sitting Bull before Custer's last stand. Sitting Bull had a dream of soldiers falling out of the sky. Well, Angelina fell out of the sky for me, and it was good."

Trudell is now the cultural advisor for Jolie's latest project, the All Tribes Foundation. "Bone Days," meanwhile, is distributed on Indigo Girl Amy Ray's independent label Daemon Records and Trudell is on a tour behind the album benefiting community radio.

But Ray and Jolie are not the first mainstream celebrities to notice Trudell. Jackson Browne produced his first record back in the mid-1980s. Bob Dylan called Trudell's 1992 Rykodisc release "aka Graffiti Man" the best album of the year. Kris Kristofferson called Trudell "a crazy lone wolf, poet, prophet, preacher, warrior … Justice is a fire that burns inside him. His spirit cries out for it. It makes him dangerous."

Dylan introduced Trudell to George Harrison in the late 1980s, an association that led to Trudell's first movie role in the film, "Pow-Wow Highway, " which Harrison produced. Trudell has appeared in eight films so far, including "Thunderheart" and "Smoke Signals." He is currently filming a mini-series for ABC's Hallmark Hall of Fame based on the myths and stories of native peoples.

"Even younger activists who might not recognize his name know someone he has worked with, or touched in some way," says Amy Ray. "John has a way of looking at the world in this holistic way. He sees how everything connects to everything else, and he has such a mesmerizing way of expressing it."

But Trudell isn't signing up to be anyone's New Age guru. "I don't believe in hope," he says. "When I was a child I was taught the story of Pandora's box. The gods gave Pandora a box and told her not to open it because it contained the seven evils of the world. Of course, she opened the box. And out came the seven evils. But then Hope came out of the box, to help us deal with the evils.

"I always questioned that. The eighth thing to come out of that box was Hope. To me that meant that Hope was the eighth evil of the world. How come Hope didn't have its own box? What was it doing in a fucking box of evil?

"So I pray more and hope less. If you cling to hope, you sit and hope and you do nothing. It's like heroin. Praying and fighting and expressing -- that's doing something."

Brooke Shelby Biggs (brooke@anitaroddick.com) is a freelance writer and editor of AnitaRoddick.com.