Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself...and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty.
Photo by Wonder Knack Digital Imagery by Gary Knack
For more than 25 years, John Trudell (Santee Dakota) has been on a spiritual war path, like many veterans of the American Indian Movement (AIM). Though John was in Nevada at the time of the occupation at Wounded Knee in 1973, he served as national spokesman and co-chairman of the American Indian Movement from 1972-1979.
Tragic events in 1979 changed Trudell's life. His wife, three children and mother-in-law were all killed in a house fire on the Shoshone Paiute Reservation in Duck Valley, Nevada. Just 24 hours earlier, Trudell and others burned the American flag on the steps on the FBI headquarters in Washington D.C. Some believe the arson was in retaliation for Trudell's political activities.
This interview with WOJB's Lori Townsend took place on Feb. 28, before Trudell performed in concert in Kyle, South Dakota, part of the 25th Anniversary of Wounded Knee:
Trudell: Being here - to me it's partly about acknowledging the other Wounded Knee occupation 25 years ago, but I think in a larger sense, it's an opportunity to get back with the community. Most of the people here are from those days, from those times. We don't get to see each other a lot any more because a lot of things have happened. In a way, it's like a family reunion to me.
It's nice to know I can come back to a nice safe place. Safe, like this is family and an opportunity to see everybody. I'm not here so much for the politics or anything. I have a lot of friends, a lot of relations from those times.
And it's also good to acknowledge the struggle itself. But I don't know that I'm here to acknowledge the struggle, as much as to see the people again.
Townsend: I know that people have said, this is to commemorate a time of healing, from that time when there was a lot of division. People were separated by the very nature of the struggle. What have you seen in 25 years, as people come together, being able to heal from that time?
Trudell: (laughs) That's a hard one to answer. I think we've learned more. And I think that learning is the healing itself. In pragmatic, practical terms, there are still personality differences and political differences that different individuals have. So on one level, it doesn't look like it's been healed. But on another level, we can all come back into one environment together and be together. Whatever our opinions and attitudes are, they don't get in the way of us all being together. That's like, there is some type of healing that has taken place. But I've never really approached it myself so much from the healing aspect, as the survivors aspect. Here's who survived, here's who still standing.
I look at it like that. I think healing, in a way, is an individual process. It has to happen in an individual before it can happen in a community.
Again, if we learn from our experiences, then we have more knowledge. To me, that's always essential to healing - knowledge and understanding. Very essential. But on the other hand, you can l nave real healing if one does not look within themselves and start that healing process.
Townsend: Your music has very strong messages. I wonder sometimes what it is that you hope people will come away with when they hear your songs.
Trudell: Well, I don't have any hopes about it but what it is, (laughs) I'm going to go off on a tangent now... When I was in school, they taught me about Pandora's box of evil. You heard about that. The gods gave Pandora the box to keep and told her not to open it, because the seven evils of the world were in it. And she opened it and the seven evils of the world came out. But then hope came out. Hope was the eighth thing to come out. They told us then that the hope came out of the box of evil to help us cope with the evil. But I've always been wary about it. Because if it's the box of evil and hope came out of it, then you have to really think about it. (laughs) Why didn't hope have its own box?
Anyway, beyond that, what I would really like to have happen is, the music and the writing, it's about making people think. I don't want people to agree or not agree with me, but to think about things. So that's what I'm trying to do, just trying to communicate what my feelings or my perceptions are. If I'm communicating with them at any level or degree, then maybe it will provoke some thinking. Even if people connect to something I write in a personal way, but then maybe it helps them to think about that. Activate our thinking, that's what I think we need to do.
A ny solutions we have for our individual lives, for the lives of our community, or for the life of the future, it all centers on how we think and how we use our intelligence is going to decide all of it. We have oppressors and we have all these things around us in this physical world, we have all this happening around us, but in the end, how we think, how we use our intelligence, this will say how we will proceed. Thinking is a number one priority, with clarity, seeking clarity and coherency.
Townsend: Let's talk about Wounded Knee 25 years ago. I've asked people to talk about where they were when they heard about the occupation, and what they were doing, and what their reaction was.
Trudell: I was in Nevada. I was with my wife, she was expecting our first baby. And we were working on this report about Johnson O'Malley monies. Any state that had reservations on it, the state couldn't tax the reservation, so the federal government gave Johnson (O'Malley money in place of taxes, for the Native students. Anyway, it was a big rip off, the states were just robbing, none of it was going to the Native youth, or Native usage at all. It was basically going to their overall school program. We had all this documentation so we wrote this big report.
And I stayed with her and did that. I knew that this (Wounded Knee) was going to happen, in advance, but for me at the time, I had reasons why I stayed where I did. Part of it was what I just explained, and others I don't want to go into at this time. I was in Nevada, and in some ways I was glad to see it happen, and in other ways, I was sad to see it happen. Because I knew it was going to change things. It was going to change everything.
Townsend: How would it change everything? What were you afraid of or sad about?
Trudell: It wasn't so much fear, it was just sadness, because I knew that the government finally had us in a situation, where they could take us into the court system and tie us up. They could stop our momentum.
I knew that from now on, we would be in a position of having to defend ourselves. That was the sad part for me. It was a necessary part, I'm not trying to put it down or anything. There is a yin and yang, a good and a bad part to everything that goes on, and this is one of those things that I knew. We were going to be tied up in the court system forever.
Townsend: Haven't Native people always been in a place where they have to defend themselves from the government?
Trudell: Yes, I think so. But I think sometimes... in one sense, with the occupation of Wounded Knee, we, the people, the Oglala Lakota, AIM, I'll say we, we did pick a place to make a stand. In one sense, that stand being here. But when this stand was done, the government picked the place where we were going to defend ourselves. To me, I prefer to pick the place that I'm going to defend myself from, as often as I possibly can. Like in defending, there are levels and ways one defends oneself.
But after Wounded Knee, all of the energy got put into defending the defendants. Whereas before we went in there, we were defending the community.
They narrowed down our energy. Symbolically, even when we were defending the defendants, symbolically, they were representing the community. But we had moved from actuality to symbolism. In those kinds of ways, I'm sad it had to turn this way.
Townsend: What do you think could have been done differently to avoid that sort of confrontation, or losing control of how you take a stand?
Trudell: We had occupied the BIA building for a week in November of 1972, about three months before Wounded Knee. I think if I would have done it differently, I'd have defended myself there. I would have done it in Washington DC. I wouldn't have left the BIA building and said, 'this is going to get settled right here.' Not out in the Plains.
There, again, we would have be in the court system, right, but the logistics would have been a bit different, because we would have been in a high media center, there was a lot of things they couldn't have done, under the cover of darkness, like they did out here. Our allies, the people we would have been surrounded by, like the black community, they didn't have war against us. The ranchers do. The whole strategies would have been different.
To have done it differently, I think, Washington DC was a place a stand could have been made, because we had everybody there. This is looking back. If it had been up to me, instinctively, at that time, I wouldn't have left Washington DC without the fight. That's where the fight would have taken place, right there in their city.
We can romanticize and glorify, feel good about the things that we should feel good about, but there is a long death list here. The death squads operated here. All that stuff happened. A lot of people lost a lot of things.
Whereas the body count might have been different, if we had had that battle in another place. This isn't criticism. It's an observation.
Townsend: So, since that time, in your mind, do you think that AIM, and what happened at Wounded Knee and in Pine Ridge, has AIM acted in actuality, or more in a symbolic sense?
Trudell: Well, I think, in actuality, things were still going on through the Oglala fire fight. And after that, the fire fight, and then the defense of the defendants out of that. I think then, things started becoming a little bit more symbolic than actual.
By then, by the time of the fire fight and the trials, by 1976-77, by that time, AIM had become pretty much decentralized. When I look at it as clearly as I can, by then internal things had started happening. AIM became more of a fragmented movement, than it was a unified movement. See, when you become more fragmented, you're probably going to be dealing more as symbolism than you are actualities.
Townsend: How about today? Do you think that AIM is still a method through which people can turn for change or has it gotten to the point that it is just symbolism?
Trudell: I think AIM is still a way that people can work for change, but it's not for everybody. For some, yes. The old days are not coming back, though things can change. In the year 2003, we can't bring back the AIM of 1973. It's not 1973, that's why we shouldn't be bringing it back.
When we go through all the things that have happened, I think we need to learn from it, learn from the mistakes we made, from what we did improperly. Then the next things we're going to do will be an extension of what we have already done. Not a repeat. So, I think for the people that AIM works for, that it will be there for them, for however long that is, however long it works for them.
AIM as a national organization, the way it was and the national momentum it had in the early 70s - those days are gone. And I don't have any regrets about those days being gone.
I think that probably the shift should be' to me, I would shift from politics into culture and art. That's what I would like to see happening.
But this isn't about AIM, this is about politics. Any politics we pick up and follow, they are not our politics. They are alien politics, but we've been put in the position of having to use those alien politics to try to accomplish. Those alien politics do not reflect the reality of who we are, but our culture and art does.
So I think in the long run the reality of who we are and our truths will come more clearly from our culture and art, than they will through politics.
Townsend: It does seem that is the way things change, through musicians and artists, coming together and bringing a message to other cultures and other people about who they are. I think we saw that when the US and Russians were terrified of each other, and artists and musicians started going back and forth. People began to realize that people in Russia were just as afraid of us, as we were of them, and that they loved their children, too. Do you think that is the direction that people need to go, to get away from the entanglement of politics and move towards art and culture? We can't ignore politics, because they are there. There will always be people inclined to go that way. So politics and political movements, they will never disappear. But I do think, that an equal emphasis, maybe even more than an equal emphasis, needs to be put on our culture, our art, expressing the reality of who we are, through that.
Trudell: If you look at it, number one, the politics that we organize under, they are European. I don't care, in the end they are, the chain of commands, the structures, the whole thing is European. That's not our way.
So that means any solutions we are trying to get that way are undermined, because it's not our way. When you look at that whole political entity, in that kind of a context, politics are very territorial. Politics are very much "party" line, at some point. Politics are very egotistical, and manifests through the individuals or whatever. When you just look at it, it's a whole lot of unnecessary confusion, in a whole lot of ways, when we are trying to express our truths. So I think through our culture and art, is really the strongest way we can.
I'm not dismissing politics, we have to deal with them because it's here. Our political structure is here. The deal is, if we going to use a political structure, then let's recognize that's what we are doing. It's a tool. It's not an identity, it's a tool.
If you have a flat tire, you take that jack out, you jack the car up, and take that tire off, and put on the good tire and you put that jack away, and you always understand that it's a tool. You don't identify yourself as a jacker.. (laughs) It's a tool you put away.
Too many people get involved in all the politics and they become politicians. That becomes their identity. If people could just pick up political movements or politics, and say, 'alright, this is the tool I'm using, that I'm a human being, I am me, and I'm using this and that.' But it doesn't happen that way. We become political activists, so now all of a sudden that becomes our identity, which then limits our ability to see. When it becomes our identity, in some kind of a bizarre way, we only see through the limited perception of our political needs.
Townsend: As you said, the 70s aren't coming back.
Trudell: We barely survived them once. (laughs)
Townsend: Well, how should people pick their battles now? As you said, if you get too involved in politics, you become a politician.
Trudell: I said you can get involved in politics, but you don't have to be a politician. It's a I mental thing. People start working on | political issues and then, at some point, they | say, 'I'm a political activist,' and that | becomes their identity; that's where the problem comes.
The question you started to ask, whatever it is that we have to do, how we're going to approach it, I think we should think it out. Look at it from every direction. It's almost as if we're stepping out of our minds, out of ourselves, and looking at the whole thing, with us in it, as neutrally and as objectively as we can. That way we'll have some clarity to go after it as clearly as we can, rather than emotionally, or limited by these identities that we impose on ourselves around an issue.
It's going to take clarity to see our way through these things, to the future that is coming.
It is in our best interest to use our intelligence intelligently. But we don't do that enough; 99.9 percent of us use our intelligence to manifest our fears, and our insecurities on a daily basis.
We're using our intelligence to be smart, I misuse of our intelligence. We don't understand that it's a murky cloud of confusion. Step back, look at this thing, see it as clearly as we can, and then follow the direction we feel we must follow.
Townsend: You mentioned to face the world that's coming. There is a lot of proposed legislation right now that really erodes sovereignty. It seems as if there is a conservative movement within governments all across the country, that there is not a | better recognition of tribal sovereignty and treaty issues, but it seems as if things are moving backwards.
Trudell: Yes. Our enemy here, if one looks at it historically, the only time that they have ever given anything to us or back to us, was so that they could take it away later. It was to meet a political need at a certain time. 'The Indians are raising hell and they got a lot of public support. So here, we'll pass this legislation, say we're going to make some concessions to them.'
But then 20 years later, they've already got it figured out how they're going to take it away. It's not just with Native people. Look at the citizens of America. We have to understand that. We will gain nothing from this way of life, this system of America. Anything that even | represents "right" that they're going to extend to us, is only so that they can take it away later, because they had to make a concession to us at this time. But, as soon as they are in a position that they no longer have to make that concession, then they will take it away. That has been their history.
That's how our land bases have shrunk.
Look at history. Take the first treaty ever | signed, and all this land people retained, but somewhere later a court decision said, 'no, you can take it away.'
And the Indians get too angry, so another court decision says, 'you can only take this much.' So the Indians get a piece. Then 20 years later or 50 years later, a new court decision says, 'no, you can take it all now.'
That's our history. It should not be surprising to us at all. This is what is going to be our historical experience.
It's been happening to us for so long now, it should almost be a part of our intuition, or genetic. (laughs)
And to me, in reality, these are cannibals. They want to eat our land, our lives, they want to eat our future. That's as cannibalistic as it can possibly get. But it has a form, government, nationhood, or whatever it calls itself,, but in the end, it's a bunch of cannibals.
Townsend: What can be done? It sounds too bleak.
Trudell: I don't look at it as bleak. I think it's best to recognize reality for what it is.
What did I say about the cannibals? Let's recognize that reality for what it is and the reality of who we are. We have intelligence. We have spirit. We have the ability to think our way through this. I think it's more optimistic to see how dark it really is, and know what reality is, and then I won't be fooling myself about what I must do.
Wouldn't it be better to understand the If l m going to do something, I'm not going to lie to myself about what I'm doing, whether it's glorious or ugly. I'm not going to fix it up, romanticize it, or make it clean. If I'm doing it, I'm going to be as honest about it as I possibly can. If I can't live with it, then I stop. If I lie to myself, then I'll find ways to live with it and continue to do it. That's obstructs our clarity.
Always tell ourselves the truth. Learn from mistakes. Don't judge ourselves. We're not in the judging business. Trust our ability. If we use our intelligence as coherently as we can, we will create the solutions.
If we go back in our history, our ancestral understanding, we always understood we had a purpose to be here. That purpose is to take care of life the best we can. What has changed is the harshness of the environment. It was hard, not romantic back then.
The hard now is the predatory civilization that surrounds us. Our ancestors trusted themselves, they respected themselves. Pride today is the mask people hide behind when they feel no respect for themselves.
Trust ourselves. Like ourselves. I like myself. I always don't like what I do.
There is no collective solution without an individual solution. I truth in a situation, then you can deal with it more effectively, than to lie to yourself because you don't want see the truth?
The darkest thing I see for the future is all these people that are hoping and wishing and don't want to see what's coming. That's the darkness. But they say they are bringing light and being optimistic, but to me these people are the ones bringing the darkness because they don't want to deal with reality. These are the ones who will perish. These are the ones that will be fed upon and eaten up.
If one really thinks about it, we can romanticize being here before the white man came. We were free, we could do what we wanted, we had responsibilities, but I tell you what, you see the storm we're having right now. It was hard surviving back then. So this is just a different hard. These cannibals are just a different hard. But they can be dealt with.
I think if we really understand self-respect, we would look at this and say, 'this is the challenge and I'm up to meeting it.'
Townsend: So what would you say to people who are struggling to see what the reality is and what to do next? I think a lot of people feel overwhelmed by everything, both politically and culturally!
Trudell: Number one, never lie to yourself. Never. If you lie to yourself, then you don't have your own basis of reality. Always tell yourself the truth. That's the first step.
Then, think things through, look at it as objectively, clearly and coherently as we can and think it through. If we don't trust ourselves, or have enough respect for ourselves to do that, we are in a lot of trouble.
If we are so far removed from ourselves, and we do not trust ourselves enough to be able to look at things intelligently, or to tell ourselves the truth, then we're already on somebody's dinner table, figuratively speaking. (laughs) I really think that's where it's at.