Remembering John Trudell, author, actor...

By Sandra Schulman
News From Indian Country

I’ve been aware of John Trudell for at least 30 years, as a journalist for Native and mainstream publications, I came across his name and work through his music and movies and activism. He was already kind of legendary, a scrappy tough rangy coyote, with fire in his eyes and belly.


I finally met him when I was working with the Native American Music Association and he came to present, perform, and ultimately to accept a Living Legend Award, presented to him by John Densmore of The Doors, a particularly proud moment for him, which he called “good heart medicine” while looking at the award in disbelief.

A few years later I produced a tribute record to Peter La Farge, the late Greenwich Village native folk protest pioneer. Trudell was at the top of my list to be on it – a near perfect combination/reincarnation of La Farge as both had been in the Navy, rebelled against a straight military life and became activist poets. When I asked John to participate he just said “Wow. A tribute to Peter La Farge.”

He did a bang up cover of a song called Bad Girl with his conveniently named band Bad Dog. It’s my favorite track, a fan made a video for it that can be seen on YouTube, a tribute to strong activist women like Winona LaDuke and Annie Mae Aquash. Trudell knows and has worked with all those major women.

The subject of an outstanding, powerful documentary by Heather Rae called simply Trudell, Trudell’s story is a heartbreak trail of how action produces reaction in ways that can be earth shaking and earth shattering. His words and actions have taken him around the globe and made him a heralded visionary, but they also may have caused enormous, almost insurmountable loss. The segment in the film that follows Trudell burning a flag on the steps of the Capitol and then having his house burned down along with his pregnant wife Tina, mother in law and children is one of the most painful things ever seen on film.

 Trudell says he “died that day” and went around in a fog for years afterward.

The stunned silence his enemies hoped would follow turned something in him that turned into something else. A torrent of words came out instead – poems and songs and “coyote logics” – cheeky, twisty soliloquies on life, death and the spirit world. He paired with some of the greatest songwriters and musicians in the world – Jackson Browne, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt – and toured and spoke and sang and got the message to a whole new receptive world.

More than just indigenous rights, Trudell was out there fighting for the very right to be a human – being. They way he uses words makes visions that seem to have never existed before, thought patterns and patterns of speech melt and dissolve and turn into wisps of smoke or daggers to the heart.

After my record was done in 2008 and I had a film on La Farge finished, I invited John and some friends of his to dinner to listen and watch. Max Gail, Charlie Hill and James Intveld came. Gail was playing the piano when Trudell came up the stairs and into the room, a thin, restless figure with his dark round shades, little knit cap, wispy gray hair and oddball trinkets and bells hanging from his ears, wrists and neck. He smelled of smoke and pot.

While Max played, Trudell went on a suddenly serious rant about the military industrial complex and how that was the real enemy we should all be aware of. It was fascinating and intense, and I felt almost embarrassed to interrupt him when dinner was ready.

But over salmon and wild rice and some good red wine, he seemed to relax. After dinner we watched the film and I saw him smile when La Farge’s goofy Navy pictures from 1954 came up, identical to ones Trudell had taken a decade later.

Later on we walked down to the beach and sat on a wall. John lit up a joint, I declined. He just nodded and kept smoking and grinning to a secret joke. After a while I walked him to his car, gave him a hug and thanked him for coming. He just shrugged and ambled into his vehicle, waving as he drove away.

A few years later I saw him perform with Winona LaDuke at an environmental rally with Bad Dog, he had the crowd in the palm of his hand, hanging on every word.

I followed him online, waited for his new records, wept for him when his new love, Micheline Bertrand died of cancer in 2007. Another love he would outlive.

The last year the pictures of him changed dramatically. He was suddenly older, thinner, alarmingly gaunt. I asked for his address to send him copies of a new book I had out, he sent me an address in San Francisco. A few months later I invited him to speak to an Arts Museum program in Florida, he never answered.

Online he began posting the most intense, spiritual, almost mystic poems under Coyote Logics that spoke of shifting dream worlds and being in the cosmos and seeing past visions as clear as tomorrow and wearing his ‘ghost suit’. His consciousness was clearly transitioning, it was both fascinating and painful to read, knowing what was most likely going on.

Then the online rumors went wild in early December that he had passed, then retractions, then some achingly honest posts and photos of him looking skeletal but serene. A warrior with dignity.

Then it was confirmed on December 8th. Death from cancer at age 69.

It’s hard to fully comprehend the impact his life has had on so many – the restlessness and confusion of his ancestry, his military stint, his 70s activism, his performing, acting, songwriting, but most of all the force of his words revealed a man fully aware and fiercely intelligent to the end. He walked a hard road and fought the good fight.

John Densmore said “A great, shamanic poet and songwriter has crossed to the happy hunting grounds.  I had the honor (along with Jennifer Warren) to give him a Native American Music Award.  His vision will stay with me until I Break on Through to the other Side.”

Trudell’s last post read “My ride showed up.”

John Trudell:
February 15, 1946 – December 8, 2015.

Support or NFIC. Thank YOU!!