The documentary Trudell looks at noted Indian poet-activist John

By Daniel Garrett

Director Heather Rae
Writer Russell Friedenberg
Featuring John Trudell, Robert Redford, Kris Kristofferson, Wilma ManKiller
Appaloosa/Balcony, 2006

Every culture has its rebels, every culture has its wise people, and for Native Americans the two are one in John Trudell. Political history and personal tragedy seem to have applied the pressure that produced thisrou gh diamond: he is hard, rare, sharp, and immensely valuable, something attested to by his comrades, friends, and family—among them, Gary Farmer, Wilma Mankiller, Jackson Browne, Robert Redford and Val Kilmer—featured in the documentary, Trudell, directed and produced by Heather Rae, a Cherokee who worked on the project for more than ten years. The film’s credits list Russell Friedenberg as writer, and editor Gregory Bayne and cinematographer Gilbert Salas as sharing some of their duties with Rae. The documentary was screened at the Sundance film festival in January 2005, and opened a little over a year later in Manhattan and San Francisco in February 2006. There are films that seek to give us more of the same—the same old stories, the same old ideas, the same old feelings—and Trudell is not at all one of those films. The focus on nature, spirituality, community, and politics is sometimes soothing and sometimes scathing in its truth.

Spirituality has been for Native Americans, as for African-Americans, a path to personal dignity, social morality, and public meaning; and in the film John Trudell talks about the importance of valuing the earth, of reconciling ourselves to the requirements of the land, and of being cognizant of what we leave to future generations. Robert Redford describes conversations with Trudell as exciting, and Wilma Mankiller talks about how essential Trudell has been to articulating Native American concerns.

“Why don’t we have the respect and dignity of all men?” is a recurring question of his. Cruelty and brutality are spoken of by Trudell because they are what have been demonstrated most consistently by official American society to the indigenous people of North America. The documentary is admirable, dramatic, informative; it is a view of an alternative reality, one in which the shards of Indian history are brought together to form a mosaic. Trudell’s face and form can be read therein—but so can the repressed history of America.

“Assembling an impressive collage of newsreels, live performances and interviews with admirers, Trudell delivers a fascinating account of its subject’s most turbulent crusades,” wrote Jeannette Catsoulis in The New York Times (February 24, 2006). She also noted, “No one in the film has a bad word to say about Mr. Trudell, despite his 17,000-page F.B.I. dossier.”

Trudell’s daughters pay tribute to him in the film, talk about the heritage he shared with them, and the unconditional love. Trudell, a mixed blood Sioux born in 1946, says his Nebraska childhood was poor but he never felt deprived; and after his mother died, he realized he “didn’t like God” (and in the film, he recites a poem in which he complains about Christians to God). Told he has potential he leaves school; already feeling as if he was somebody, he didn’t want to become somebody (else). He volunteered for the military, the Navy,and was given a tour of duty (1963-1967) in Vietnam; and he says he made the right choice of military branch as the Vietnamese had no navy. With other American natives, he took over the abandoned Alcatraz Island, the former United States prison complex. To see film interviews from that time is to become reacquainted with a period of radical social change and possibility; ideas and practices were embraced with force. Trudell says the Alcatraz Island takeover was a legal, not a moral, issue; and he cites various treaties the government had made with natives, then betrayed. With the takeover of Alcatraz, for the first time, young natives were standing up, says Wilma Mankiller, a United Nations advisor and the former chief of the Cherokee Nation. Trudell, seen then holding a child, and talking about Native American hopes, at that time is at his most hopeful and charming. The interviews with the participants can bring tears to the eyes, but their puritanical inclination may have prevented a success they could have built on: they were offered a lease to half of Alcatraz Island, with funding and the proviso that they act as caretakers of the island. They said no to that; and soon a government assault team arrived, and on June 11, 1971, the natives were removed. They had been there for about twenty-one months, beginning in 1969.

In the film, one official government document is quoted as saying that John Trudell is extremely eloquent and that made him extremely dangerous: that is why government files on him totaled more than 17,000 pages. Trudell says many things—about the alienation of people from the land, how many do not have the spirit to live; and that people must control the land to be able to change the systems that take place on the land. “The great lie is that it is civilization—it is the most bloodthirsty, brutal system,” he says. (Trudell also states a belief in genetic memory, a comment that requires discussion and evaluation, as far as I am concerned.) Trudell reminds us that people have traditionally lived in tribes; and affirms that accepting sky as father and earth as mother gives (humbling, useful) perspective.

“All I did was talk, and they cracked down hard just for that,”Trudell says. Robert Redford says he, Redford, was amazed that a government would try to dismantle a culture by first destroying a people’s spirit. To hear a figure such as Redford—someone most of us take for the mainstream—say something like that adds great weight to the film and to one’s sense of the integrity and value of Trudell. Trudell’s courage and honesty enables that of others. However, such testaments have made more than one critical commentator suspicious. “Trudell is an entrancing character and quite camera-friendly. But the film is so one-sided as to put the disinterested viewer on guard, which I don’t think is Rae’s intention,” wrote Walter Addiego in the San Francisco Chronicle (February 3, 2006).

“The backstory portion of the film, though, chock-full of archival footage and contemporary interviews with Trudell and his American Indian Movement cohorts, is riveting,” asserted Mark Holcomb in an otherwise snarky Village Voice review (viewable online as of February 21, 2006).

John Trudell says that the American Indian Movement’s focus was community, the way of the tribe, and legal issues. Trudell was a national spokesman for the movement from the early 1970s to 1979. He and others say that just as the government’s counter intelligence program (Cointelpro) infiltrated the civil rights movement as part of an attempt to subvert it from within and without, it did the same to the American Indian Movement. Such efforts preceded the siege of Wounded Knee in South Dakota, where many native lands were being poisoned by various mining concerns. (Apparently much of the country’s mineral deposits are on native lands.) We see film of the government’s military response: armored tanks, helicopters, and men with machine guns. In one conflict, government agents die, with three native men arrested and charged; and there is official propaganda that promotes a paranoid climate against the natives, describing them as being a terrorist threat. Smartly, the American Indian Movement did local outreach in Cedar Rapids, meeting with many people to introduce themselves and explain their concerns. When two of the men are tried, they plead self-defense and are acquitted, but Leonard Pelletier, who is tried in another location, is not allowed to make the same plea: and he is convicted. (“Case was covered more extensively in another previous documentary, Michael Apted’s Michael Apted Incident at Oglala (1992), which also featured interviews with Trudell,” said  Variety’s Joe Leydon, February 24, 2005, after screening Trudell at the Sundance festival January 29, 2005).

The most poignant part of the film concerns John Trudell’s marriage to his wife Tina, and their children. “Me and Tina were a good team,” Trudell says. He talks about her intelligence, how they complemented each other (he notes, humorously, that her study of psychology prepared her to deal with him). She traveled with him, and they worked together, but she wanted to return to her home, Duck Valley (Nevada), and work there: “Tina was from there, they knew her, trusted her, she was educated, and knew how things worked,” he says. Trudell burned an American flag in front of the F.B.I.’s Washington headquarters; and twelve hours later his wife, their children, and Tina’s mother were dead in a suspicious Nevada house fire. The government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs did a lackluster investigation, and a private arson investigator did not support the Bureau’s analysis of the fire’s cause. Trudell, who says that to say his wife was killed because of his actions discounts her own value and the threat she posed, declares that he died with the killing of his family, that he had to die in order to get through that time; and, in his grief, he went to Canada and began to write. Kris Kristofferson says that Trudell’s family’s death made him fearless.

Trudell declares that he requested asylum from Canada not to embarrass the United States but because he needed refuge as part of the real war he was part of, the centuries-old war waged against natives.

Someone, a foolish reporter, asks Trudell about celebrating Columbus Day; and he says asking Natives to celebrate Columbus is like asking Americans to celebrate Osama Bin Laden. The arrival of Europeans on native lands centuries ago was devastating, like a virus, he asserts. He sees European nations as the parents of America, as also to blame; and thinks that citizens in developed countries—who enjoy the fruits of their countries wealth—have a responsibility for the policies of those countries, a very succinct charge, and a practical conclusion.

The film “rhymes” Trudell’s presence with a coyote moving across a field, suggesting they share a similar nature. The young Trudell seemed to me to be intense and open, the older Trudell sadder, less hopeful, but reflective. He’s one of our philosophers, someone says, we used to have more of them.

Trudell was lucky enough to find a talented musician who wanted to work with him, a Kiowa native who had worked with well-known folk and rock figures, Jesse Ed Davis. Together they did several music albums, including A.K.A. Graffiti Man and Heart Jump Bouquet. (It seems that Trudell on his album cover spelled graffiti with one f, but doubled the t.) Trudell, whose work is centered on the ideas and observations in his lyrics, has said that he writes songs for all people. He, also, has produced music with guitarist Mark Sharp, Fables and Other Realities, and with his children, Child’s Voice. Angelina Jolie, actor and activist, produced one of his albums, Bone Days; and she is one of the executive producers of the film Trudell. (Trudell has also appeared as an actor in several films, such as Powwow Highway, Thunderheart, Smoke Signals, and A Thousand Roads.)

“Trudell remains interesting, but appreciably less compelling, while charting the activist’s evolution into a poet and musician following the mysterious deaths of his wife, children and mother-in-law in a 1979 house fire that many claim was deliberately set by political enemies. Footage of Trudell in concert as a spoken-word artist accompanied by musicians indicate his work, however impassioned, is very much an acquired taste. Here and elsewhere, however, Trudell comes across as a charismatic figure whose gravely thoughtful demeanor is leavened with self-effacing humor,” wrote Joe Leydon, Variety (February 24, 2005).

Yet, the film, which has been shown at about twenty film festivals, is the kind of work that may be seen one day as a building block of a new civilization (or the renaissance of an old one). Usually montages are dull, but in this film’s combining of traditional native dancing with nature and communal and political scenes, it achieves formal beauty and cultural memory. The political history the film tells, and the life it records, are important.

“Men cannot destroy the earth, only man’s ability to live with the earth,” Trudell concludes.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, is a writer who lives in New York. He wrote a piece called “The Barbarian Invasions” for in which he discussed Haircuts Hurt, a ten-minute short film written and directed by Randy Redroad (Cherokee), and Cowboys and Indians, written by Andrew Rai Berzins and directed by Norma Bailey. His work has also appeared in The African,, American Book Review, The Audubon Activist, Changing Men, The Humanist,, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.  (The Trudell commentary appeared on the internet site of Native Times, shortly before its appearance at The Compulsive Reader.)