John Trudell

John Trudell was an early member of and spokesman for the Native American rights movement and helped to promote a spoken word style that honors Native American oral traditions.


In a previous post, I mentioned Rébecca Kleinberger‘s work on the different voices we all have. She says that the voice with which we speak to others is a way of projecting (ourselves) in the world, a marker of (our) fluid identity. But where does a voice come from? Can we piece together a puzzle of clues from somebody’s life and work out an answer to that question?

Continuing the theme of the voice and how certain voices are good at making people listen, let’s try to explore the question of where a voice comes from through a portrait of John Trudell. He was a Santee Dakota spoken word artist. And a voice to be reckoned with.

A 500 year-old voice

Rockin the Res, John Trudell, 1992

I first noticed John Trudell in 1992, the year he released a CD called AKA Grafitti Man. It was the wind and fury of Rockin the Res, heard on the radio, that stopped me in my tracks. His was a voice, almost conversational but somehow assertive. Listen to the song for yourself and see what you think. He seems to be talking about life as he experienced it, but also something wider. Back in ’92, the tension and poetry made you sit up and listen, and the music made you want to dance even if you didn’t know how.

Thunderheart, Michael Apted, 1992

1992 was certainly a breakthough year, because he also starred in a movie called Thunderheart by Michael Apted. In one scene, Jimmy Looks Twice, the character played by John Trudell, is arrested by FBI agents played by Sam Shepard and Val Kilmer. Jimmy defies their swagger with a swagger of his own by reminding them that his is a 500 year-old voice which can’t be silenced and should be listened to, because it has been talking to non-Native Americans and their ancestors in 500 years of resistance since 1492. For the spectator, that voice is Trudell’s.

30 years on, examples of John’s writing can be found on the prestigious website. You can read them, but they will just be words on a page. Remember he was a spoken word artist, whose voice came to maturity as a result of the paths he trod, and it is when he performs his poems over music and breathes life into them that the words fly.

Let’s see what clues we can find about where that voice came from.

Voice raised on the reservation

Born in 1946, John Trudell grew up near the Great Sioux Reservation which covers parts of South Dakota and Nebraska, a place where life could be grim for people who couldn’t make themselves heard.  Repeated breaches in the Fort Laramie Treaty, which created the Reservation in 1868, had led to sections of Indian land being sold for other purposes, farming among them. Some unusually wet years would lead mainly European settlers to intensify their agricultural methods in the region until high winds and drought would return in the 1930s. This created what the history books now call The Dust Bowl, with all its attendant human and economic drama.

By the mid-1940s, the region had long since been abandoned by those ruined farmers and their families. Who owned the lands they left behind? There were so many Native American claims for their restitution as confiscated traditional lands that the Department of Justice was unable to deal with them.

By 1946, nearly 200 claims had been filed under special jurisdictional acts, but the Court of Claims had awarded damages on only 29 of these claims. (See Final Report of the United States Indian Claims Commission, August 13, 1946 [to] September 30, 1978 at 3.) The fact that the “bulk of the rest” of the nearly 200 claims had been “dismissed on technicalities” led to demands for “revised jurisdictional acts.”

US Department of justice, Lead up to the INDIAN CLAIMS COMMISSION

So Trudell came into a world where Native Americans would begin to slowly see results from a long, patient raising of their institutional voice. The Indian Claims Act was voted in 1946, and while the slow burn of the judicial engines meant that while most cases were only completed by the 1970s, the last one wasn’t closed until the 2000s.

Voice raised by Rock n Roll

The affirmation of who you are comes through hearing other people around you speaking up. While legal wrangles and the language of justice were certainly part of that in Trudell’s formative years, this was also a time when rock n roll shaped a new America.

c.1957: Elvis Presley (1935-1977) performing outdoors on a small stage to the adulation of a young crowd. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The new music crossed social barriers, either by knocking them down or by simply ignoring their existence, offering a way to overcome what podcaster Anna Van Valin characterizes as the personal history and social conditioning which constantly stands between an individual and liking the sound of his/her voice enough to raise it.

And, of course, as rock n roll moved into the 1960s and became pop, and then rock, there was a whole new area of constantly changing cultural and personal expression waiting to be discovered. Plus, you didn’t need to worry about your inability to master the English language in its most widely accepted form, adhering to fixed academic norms of spelling, grammar, and usage in written and spoken contexts, and neutralizing nonstandard dialectal variation.

Right from the mid 1950s, a successful artist could fast track on social status through recognition. Who was Elvis Presley, after all ? A truckdriver, like his father before him.  But Elvis could sing, and this gift of a golden voice meant he could raise his voice and be heard – all the way to the Great Sioux Reservation where John Trudell was all ears.

Baby Boom Che, John Trudell and Jesse Ed Davis, 1992

You wanna know what happened to Elvis? I’ll tell you what happened. I oughta know, man, I was one of his army. I mean, man, I was on his side. He made us feel all right. We were the first wave in the Postwar baby boom. The generation before had just come out of the Great Depression and World War II.

The first wave rebelled. I mean, we danced even if we didn’t know how.  I mean, Elvis made us move. Instead of standing mute, he raised our voice and, when we heard ourselves, something was changing. You know, like for the first time we made a collective decision about choices.

John Trudell

You didn’t have to ask to become a member of this new movement, you simply decided you were one. John Trudell’s classic Baby Boom Che shows what a huge difference rock n roll made to his life, revealing a new platform for speaking out, even though the song recognizes that Elvis got assassinated in all the fame. But John would soon discover that you didn’t have to be a rock n roll star to raise your voice and be listened to.

Voice of a spokesman

Having left the US Navy in 1967 after a 4-year tour of duty in Vietnam, Trudell chose to go to San Bernadino Valley College for two years to learn about broadcasting and discover how radio worked. The seeds of his political awareness may have been planted by the talk of justice and injustice he grew up with, but his years as a serviceman at such a crucial time would certainly have helped it take on a shape all its own. Broadcasting would fine tune that voice for the first time.

An ex-serviceman, fresh from broadcasting school, but a Santee Dakota Indian, he found himself spokesman for a group of Native Americans who carried out a 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay from November 1969 to June 1971. Under the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty, the group affirmed the right to take possession of what was effectively abandoned federal property and to reclaim it as Indian land.

The aptly named Indian Land Radio had John Trudell as presenter, and his calm, clear, determined voice reflected the spirit of the occupiers. As the actor Lou Diamond Phillips would put it decades later : for the first time we saw young natives standing up and saying we have rights, we have rights to the land … to our own government … we want to be listened to and we will be heard.

This recording opens with John Trudell, Indian Land Radio presenter, live from Alcatraz, 1969

The Alcatraz action would be followed by others as the 1970s rolled on, the occupation of the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in the Spring of 1973 being particularly well documented. Following arrests among the leaders of The American Indian Movement , John Trudell was promoted from being spokesman to becoming AIM’s National Chairman from 1973 to 1979.

Ten years of activism would see John Trudell become a recognized defender of Indian rights, who learned how to make people listen with a voice that rarely seemed to tremble.

The speech that changed everything

Then at the end of a speech on February 11, 1979, in front of the FBI Building in Washington DC, he set fire to the American flag to protest at the continuing bad treatment of Native Americans. The consequences would be dramatic.

Family portrait – Wikipedia

The next day, his wife Tina, his mother-in-law and their children all died tragically in a house fire. Was it the accident described by the inquest? Or were the government fighting fire with fire and putting an outspoken Native American back in his place? Whatever the dark truth, Trudell lost his loved ones.

Refusing to give up his fight for justice, but unable to carry on leading AIM, he disappeared from official activist circles. In his own words, he went into crazy time, in search of himself.

Voice of a spoken word artist

AKA Grafitti Man,
original cassette release cover, 1986

Devastation and loss sent Trudell on a long personal journey of thousands of miles, right up to Canada. He had to find a way forward, a way to voice differently.

As he tried to come to terms with the traumatic events he had come through, Trudell was visited by a new form of expression. He began to draw on thoughts and feelings formulated by a new inner voice which spoke in poetry.

Having spent a decade speaking out for others, defending values handed down to him through previous generations, John Trudell found a voice that was truly his own, as he explains here.

About six months after the fire, I was with Dino Butler in Vancouver. He was the one who took care of me after the fire. And I was really desperate. I didn’t know anything, not even what reality was. Anyway, we were there in Canada, driving around, and I was feeling really bad. It was very overcast outside, and these lines came into my head and something told me to write them down and not to stop writing them. And I started writing my lines, the car poems. But in reality they were lines that were given to me to hold on to, these were my hanging-on lines. And I know that’s real to me, that this is something that Tina gave to me as a parting gift and, somewhere in that haze and smoke, I recognized to follow where this writing would take me, to follow it, to just go with it, whatever the madness, whatever the extremes I had to bounce around to follow the writing and, maybe some day, I’d find some kind of centre.

John Trudell, Documentary TRUDELL, 2005

The AIM spokesman of the past developed a new voice, first speaking to and for himself, then gradually to audiences through poetry performances, initially accompanied by recordings of traditional musical forms. But remember that Trudell had grown up with rock n roll. A friendship begun with singer-songwriter Jackson Browne in 1979, opened up the world of recording studios. Could there be a connection between poetry and rock music? Not immediately.

That connection would not become reality until Trudell and the celebrated Native American blues-rock guitarist Jesse Ed Davis met in May 1985 at a California Native American Rehabilitation Center – Davis had serious addiction problems from 1975 onwards. As Jesse Ed’s biographer Douglas K Miller explains, this would be a turning point for both of them : Hearing Trudell perform his poetry to backing tapes of traditional traditional pow-wow music, Jesse told him he could put his music to poetry.

Put his music to poetry? Don’t we normally put words to music or poetry to music? It depends who you are talking to. In 2002, John Trudell explained My feeling is that the music becomes an extension of the words. Jesse Ed understood that. He was a gifted musician whose art was of such maturity, right from the beginning, that his music was a magnet for others. Davis was actually part of a project to take a four-piece John Lennon Band out on tour – Lennon, Ringo Starr, Klaus Voormann and Jesse Ed – when Lennon was shot in December 1980.

The Grafitti Band, formed in 1986 with Trudell, was the moment when Davis resurfaced again in a regular musical project. Davis was a musician who had always been secretive about his origins, and Trudell had been the voice of Native American activism but needed more mainstream music to carry his voice. Each brought to the collaboration what the other was lacking. Together they made and sold a cassette which gave the world the first edition of AKA Grafitti Man.

Davis having had a long career behind him, the group were supported by endorsements from famous artists, particularly Bob Dylan, who named the Graffitti Band cassette his Album of the Year and played it to pre-show audiences on his tour. Dylan, George Harrison and John Fogerty all even joined The Grafitti Band onstage at one memorable concert in 1987.

John Trudell, Bob Dylan, Jesse Ed Davis and George Harrison backstage 1987
– Source Harrison Archive

Smaller than his voice had let me imagine

Time passed, and the new poetry and music mix took shape and earned respect. Sadly, Jesse Ed Davis died of an overdose in June 1988, but Mark Shark, who was already in the band, having followed Davis note for note, stepped from rhythm to lead guitar and the project took on new life. That year The Grafitti Band played support on Midnight Oil‘s triumphant Diesel and Dust US Tour. John Trudell went on to record a new augmented version of the AKA Grafitti Man cassette, produced by Jackson Browne, which got international release on CD and reached my ears in 1992, as mentioned earlier.

When John T came to France in 1995 with his band, now called Bad Dog, I went with my son Sam to see him live in Toulouse at the legendary club Le Bikini at its original site along the banks of the Garonne. That was before the explosion of the chemical factory AZF destroyed it in September 2001, which is another story.

It was a late show starting at 10 pm, and the place wasn’t exactly full as the four musicians suddenly emerged from among the crowd, crossing the floor as one unit to climb up on stage.

Rant and Roll from Johnny Damas and Me,
John Trudell 1994

Sam remembers Mark Shark‘s cigarette burning slowly on the headstock of his guitar as he played. I remember the imposing figure of Quiltman who towered above everyone and played traditional percussion with vocal accompaniments. There was also a great drummer but no bass player. And then there was John, smaller than his voice had let me imagine. He had already released his second album, Johnny Damas and Me, at this point. I was impressed that none of the pieces he performed that night were from either album because that fact alone made the whole concert a discovery. It was a sign that he still had so much more to say.

Can you people understand any of what I’m saying?

There was a magic moment somewhere late in the concert when there was a lull among the audience after one piece. Trudell asked : Can you people understand any of what I’m saying?

How do you answer a question like that?1 Maybe we were a mainly French-speaking audience. Who knows? But when somebody puts words about love, tenderness, and friendship together, and contrasts these with some lines about suffering and heartbreak, while mixing in reminders about our common humanity and shared responsibilty for the environment our the earth, people understand across languages. Others have noted John Trudell’s ability to reach across the age gap by his fusion of traditional and contemporary art forms, and across the gender gap by making sure the voice of women is heard.

In the audience fallen suddenly quiet back in Toulouse in 1995, how could we answer John’s question? Could we understand any of what he was saying? As a teacher, I remember the day I decided to stop asking people Do you understand? because it dawned on me that people couldn’t really give a simple answer to that question for themselves. But here we had an artist wondering out loud whether all his words were in vain. Slowly, there came a groundswell of applause and encouragement. His words were okay with us. We were with him. Where had we disappeared to? Something in the music? In the poetry? Or the voice?

You want my name?

It was a stunning performance. When Trudell came off stage, he stuck around, making it clear he was happy to talk. He was extremely approachable and respectful of what each person had to say to him. He apologized for not speaking French to people who had a lot to say to him but couldn’t speak English, and I offered to translate for them. I remember him pulling me close to his ear so he could catch everything from my own initially trembling voice. I then translated John’s answers back into French. Finally, when everyone had gone it was our turn, but the club DJ had put the music on full blast so conversation was impossible.

Signed John Trudall by John Trudell

We shook hands, thanked John for the concert. He said Thanks for helping me out with the language. We asked him for his autograph as a souvenir. His expression suddenly changed and he looked me straight in the eye and said : You want my name? He was speaking to me. What could I say? Your autograph, as a souvenir. He took the pen and signed the back of our concert tickets, changing Trudell to Trudall in the process. He handed them back. I looked at what he’d written. He waited, still looking at me, then said : Is that OK?  How could it not be?

Not fade away

Souvenirs are one thing, but I hope that this attempt to mix personal and public histories has given you enough to want to know more.

John Trudell continued writing and recording right up to the end of his life in December 2015. And just to prove that John still means something, check out the thoughts from Chapter 40 in Bob Dylan’s Philosophy of Modern Song published in 2022. The chapter focuses on Trudell’s Doesn’t Hurt Anymore, but Dylan is using it as bait to encourage people to look further.

His words carry in their simplicity the confidence of ancient wisdom. He’s no rapper. More like an ancient Greek poet. You know exactly what he’s saying and who he’s saying it to … John was not mainstream. He didn’t talk about popular subjects… He wasn’t the sort of Indian to put on a head dress and perform in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show … Take a moment. Read a little more about John Trudell than what is offered here. He deserves it.

BOB Dylan, The Philosophy of modern song, 2022

His final albums, made in collaboration with Swiss artist and producer Kwest, open a new chapter where the Jesse Ed Davis concept of putting music to words is put to work. Kwest uses electronic and ambient sounds in a way that brings Trudell’s work truly into the 21st century.

Have a listen to these two extracts by way of example and tell yourself that the music was put over the words. Like Broken Butterflies has an eery other-worldly quality which you can also find on Leonard Cohen‘s final recordings. But John Trudell continues to have a voice of his own. The use of pluralisation of nouns or nominal groups – Casting self-defences into heartbeats of dreams – was a trademark of Trudell’s later writing which gives an all-embracing scope to his words.

Through the dust, John Trudell & Kwest, 2014

One time someone’s tried talking to God on my behalf

And he told them he appreciated their efforts but he didn’t want to hear it

Something about I was going to have to do my own damn explaining

Through the dust, John Trudell, 2014

Can it be that living a life in fear is when death wins

And language is a used form of twin frequencies

Modulating tones into behavioural predictabilities

With the grand schemers of things at the controls

While restless winds swirl within restless thoughts

Casting self-defences into heartbeats of dreams

Like broken butterflies, john trudell, 2015
Like Broken Butterflies, John Trudell & Kwest, 2015

The July 2023 release of a new documentary, Lakota Nation vs the United States, shines a light on the question of the fight for ownership of traditional American Indian lands. A legal agreement signed by two parties is generally binding for both but, as The Guardian report on the film shows, the struggle for recognition of treaties signed in the 19th century is not over yet.

Reading that film review made me want to watch the trailer for Lakota Nation vs the United States. I couldn’t help thinking that a voice was missing; the voice was that of John Trudell, the Santee Dakota spoken word artist. When you have a 500-year voice, of course, it never really fades away, so I’ll have to see the whole movie to check that out fully.

Meanwhile, take Bob Dylan’s advice : Read a little more about John Trudell than what is offered here. He deserves it.

Still want more?

Take a peek at this moving portrait written by David Kupper in December 2015 and which I discovered as I was about to publish this post.

The Complete Trudell Archives are available online.

There is a very reliable John Trudell YouTube Channel making all his studio recordings easily accessible.

I have also compiled a John Trudell YouTube Playlist including all the videos given in this post.

  1. I have been following tango, listening to it intensively since 1995, picking up Spanish along the way. Slowly, very slowly I am beginning to understand the lyrics of tangos I have been listening to for nearly 30 years. That didn’t stop me getting something, understanding something from the start. Language is not a problem when it’s put to music. ↩︎

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