Like so many of us American Indians who have spent the better part of our lives trying to find our place in the world—in American life and in tribal life—John Trudell was born and grew up dirt poor in the wind-swept openness of the prairies of Nebraska. He was part of a half-broken family, often having to wear worn-down shoes to school, constantly deflecting taunts from all those others on the school bus whose homes were well-heated in the winter, and who surely had breakfast and a good lunch. He shared a lot of his life story with me when he and I were writing a script for a one-person theater play about his life with the apt title of “Permanent Paranoia.”
This was at UCLA around 1999-2000, where I was teaching and where Mr. Trudell was taking a break from his activism and spoken-word concerts and performances to capture some of the important details of his stunning life story and shape them into a narrative he could share with many people in theaters in Indian country, across America, and the world. We created a pretty good first act, we agreed, and then we came to an unexpectedly challenging phase of the story, the chronological period from about 1979 to the early 1980s, when he began transforming into an artist and performer.
I sensed that this was because John was not egocentric, that he found talking about himself, about “me” and “my work” and his “art” and his personal point of view difficult and alien to his true inner nature and self, particularly as an Indian person. This is not an unfamiliar trait with many creative American Indians, and I have located its origins in the collective realities and experiences of tribal life, of being born and growing up as part of a group of people, a very large extended family. Also, this is where the play was going to start taking on more theatricality, more staging and performance elements, more pizzazz as entertainment, and John sensed that this was going to be difficult. He wasn’t quite ready for this.
It was in Los Angeles in the early 1980s that John began to see some flickers of light at the end of a very long and terrible tunnel. He had been wandering in a surreal American Indian wilderness for about five years, fighting with all his might to not be sucked into the awful madness that was pulling at him from all directions, a shattered man who had lost his wife and three children in a house fire, the cause of which was almost certainly revenge arson for his AIM activism and which controversially divides many Indians to this day.
In California he crossed paths with singer Jackson Browne, who extended a helping hand as an artist and friend, and began tutoring John in poetry and songwriting. Slowly, steadily, John learned how to express his thoughts and wounded emotions and feelings in words and sounds, and blessedly, how to share his pain, his loss, his disappointments, and how to understand them and deal with them in a good, respectful, healing way. In a couple of years it was clear that he had a unique ability in this, and these musical performance skills became strong anchors of his character and of who and what he needed to be. He was not hesitant to address his fears, his loneliness, his sense of loss. That took a lot of courage, a lot of strength, and a lot of hope and respect. His early spoken word collections, “Aka Graffitti Man” and “Heart Jump Bouquet,” which he created with the late Jessie Ed Davis, are antic, rocking accounts of the thoughts and ideas and feelings that were again flowing through his remarkable mind.
He was one of the most intelligent and creative Indians I have known, a smart, witty autodidact who was too untamed and independent and radical to have become an academic. He needed to be free, completely free, to continue his search for forgiveness and acceptance and redemption. He had to do this his way, the John Trudell way—there wasn’t any other way for him to carry out his life mission. And he did, and he set an admirable example.
Over the years, he absorbed certain elements of the character of Coyote into his persona, his thoughts, his writings, his style. Coyote is, among his aspects, a shaman, and Trudell became a shaman. Shaman gonna make a chant, a chant, a chant. This, to me, was an ongoing act of self transformation, part of his creative strategy to move beyond the AIM era, word by spoken word, poem by poem, speech by speech, gig by gig, day by day, hour by hour, and to find a way, a vision, to help him believe that his life and all its meaning had not been cruelly made meaningless by those forces beyond all our control.
I don’t know if the tribal leaders and elders of traditional times would have appointed him to serve and act as a shaman in the old tribal culture and community of the past, but in our 20th and 21st century revised ways, Trudell was an acceptable fit for this important role in the community. He intuited this and slowly and confidently began to make that role work for him, and for himself to fit into the role. Shaman. Coyote. Trudell. And add artist, and prophet, and seer, and even holy man to the list. Trudell became all of these, and to his credit, he performed each and all with respect, integrity and responsibility. He was always, always respectful of all things and all people.
It was Indian America’s challenge to make the effort and adjustments for accepting this, and many young Indians have done so while others have resisted or been hesitant. But few can honestly deny that Mr. Trudell had that special something, that mystical buzz, that oddness, that otherness, that detached quality—all intertwined with his words, spoken, half sung, orated, written, shared and performed and offered. Right down to the end, when his strength began to wane, when the roles of truthsayer and prophet became harder to perform, and when living on the ultra-meager income of an American Indian performing artist had extracted its numbing, exhausting toll.
We can think of Mr. Trudell as an American Indian artist and leader who occupied a unique role in our collective public life for nearly 45 years, as an activist, a militant, a radical, a poet, an actor, a wit, a teacher, an entertainer, a provocateur, a trickster, a father, a ladies’ man, a patriot, a bohemian and a defender. He didn’t make hardly any money in all his long career, he didn’t live the high life or ever look down on anybody. He simply wanted to do all that he could to help Indian people, each and every one of us, find our ways out of our morass, out of our wilderness, out of our loss and confusion, all of which he was plunged into at such a young time in his life on this earth. Mr. Trudell had been engulfed in that bleak darkness, and he generously shared with us, in an outpouring of artistic creativity and deeply sincere coaxing and exhortation, his gallant, prolonged effort to find his way through it. It’s all there, in his songs, speeches, those funky, out-there poems, and in his laughter and all that other Coyoteness.
Those who knew him will miss him terribly and those who did not should be made aware that a wonderful, unique and irreplaceable Indian and thoroughly good man has passed from our midst. Aho. Aho.
Hanay Geiogamah is a professor at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television and American Indian Studies.