Grandmothers Talking: My Time and Teachings with John Trudell

This homage to Native American poet and activist John Trudell originally appeared on December 14, 2015 at the L.A. Public Library website:

Crazy Horse

We hear what you say

One Earth one Mother

One does not sell the Earth

The people walk upon

We are the land

How do we sell our Mother

How do we sell the stars

How do we sell the air…

—John Trudell

Poet and activist John Trudell expressed in words and actions, in music and movies, the plight, fight and lasting permanence of the Native American experience in the United States. In his public talks, John delved into indigenous history and cosmology, which have long been dismissed, misunderstood, and attacked. John Trudell did this with clarity, dignity, and ferocity.

This past week, on December 8, 2015, this warrior poet, life-long revolutionary, personal teacher, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather passed on after a long bout with cancer. He was sixty-nine.

I met John not long after my family and I returned from Chicago in 2000 when he lived in a small apartment in Santa Monica. In 2001, my wife Trini and I helped create Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center & Bookstore in Sylmar. Soon after our doors opened, John blessed our space with his presence and packed the house. He talked, read poetry, and talked some more. He cast a spell with great lucidity of natural things, a deep sense of justice, and what it means to be truly human. He didn’t leave anybody off the hook—the racists, the colonialists, the corporations, the climate destroyers, the powerful and rich. He also introduced subtle and multidimensional concepts.

John, a Santee Dakota born in Nebraska, had several CDs over the years with various musicians, including a band called Bad Dog. I saw them perform at the Whisky A-Go Go a couple of times, once when Angelina Jolie introduced them. I was also in a Culver City studio when John and Bad Dog recorded one of their last albums.

The moments I treasure most were the hours we spent at John’s cramped apartment as he related stories, his thinking, his experiences. Together we traversed his early life, the tumultuous history of the American Indian Movement (AIM), the takeover of Alcatraz Island by Native peoples, the infiltration and dismantling of AIM leadership, the F.B.I.-instigated murder of his friend Anna Mae Aquash, on through when his family—pregnant wife Tina, their three children, and Tina’s mother—were killed in a suspicious house fire in February 1979 on Nevada’s Duck Valley Reservation.

That fire happened a day after John had burned an American flag in front of the F.B.I. building in Washington D.C. John said the fire was set, and a private investigator claimed as much, but local authorities never acknowledged this.

John told me how after he returned home to see the devastation, and paid last respects to his family, he walked among the ashes for days. After this he began to write poetry, something he never did before. But Tina did write poems. John said Tina gave him the words.

“They’re called poems,” John related to one interviewer. “But in reality they’re lines given to me to hang on to.”

John then broke out onto the world with chapbooks and albums of his words with music. Supporters included Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson. He worked with Native drummer and vocalist Quiltman as well as renowned Kiowa guitarist Jesse Ed Davis. He had roles in the movies “Thunderheart,” starring Val Kilmer and Graham Greene, and “Smoke Signals,” with a screenplay by Sherman Alexie. A documentary of his life by filmmaker Heather Rae, “Trudell,” appeared in 2006 on PBS’s Independent Lens. His last book, Lines from a Mined Mind: The Words of John Trudell, was a poetry collection released in 2008 by Fulcrum Publishing.

John and I worked on a possible autobiography. At the time, I met his then partner, Marcheline Bertrand, Angelina Jolie’s mother, before she passed on in 2007 of cervical and breast cancer. At the Beverly Hills hotel where Marcheline lived, I sat down in the lobby and had a nice talk with this sweet woman. That book was finished and turned over to John. I felt more work needed to be done, but I left this in John’s hand. We never did get back to this. My efforts to reconnect with John went nowhere—and my own life took other turns.

Yet, I remember how the book was going to start—with our grandmothers talking. John’s mother Ricarda was descended from the Tarahumara tribe of southern Chihuahua, Mexico. The story he told was that Ricarda’s mother was kidnapped by a man running away from the Mexican Revolution and ended up in Nebraska. My own grandmother was from the same tribe (also known as the Rarámuri), who left the tribal lands during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1930) with her mother to keep from starving. Somehow our lives intersected from this spiritual prodding. Whether the book ever sees the light of day, I leave in the Creator’s hands. Nonetheless, John’s lessons, his stories, his adventures and mis-adventures, have changed a life—mine.

…The wisdom of Infants and elders

Crying and laughing

Songs in the beginning

Sung in the end…

My Tarahumara grandmother, and John’s Tarahumara grandmother, continued to push my thoughts, my heart, my tongue with the shared word view of all Native peoples. John emphasized the power each human being has, the power the earth has, how we don’t need to be given power—as human beings, we are already energy. Already power. Not authority over others, but with our own geniuses, stories, energies—each person with his or her own authority.

I once had a talk with a European American ex-Marine who insisted that the U.S. Constitution was the most powerful written paper after the Bible. But Native peoples, all indigenous people, regardless of where, didn’t need a paper to give them freedom or rights. We had this just by being born, being human beings, being energy. A written constitution is like a limited warranty—it corrals and restricts our birth right as human beings. Read the U.S. Constitution—it guaranteed rights to white men of property, not women, not Natives, not blacks, not the laboring classes. There have been wars, marches, and civil unrests to spread out the freedoms in that paper—that’s the U.S. historical process.

It’s the Earth that gives us life, not a paper, not the U.S. government. The Earth gives us freedoms, as long as we understand we are only free when we align and abide by the laws of nature, not the laws of men. John says it’s time to think, not believe (“believe” has the word “lie” in it). Think, not just react.

For John, clarity and coherency were paramount.

Presently, to save our climate, the Earth, we need to live as human beings tried to do in the beginning—to have a meaningful and respectful relationship with everything, including stars, animals, air, trees, minerals… and to have a meaningful and respectful relationship with each other. Jesus said substantially the same thing with his two commandments summarizing all previous laws and commandments: Love God above all else (God as Creator and Creation) and treat others as you want to be treated.

Buddha, Mohammed, Black Elk, et al, essentially offered the same wisdom.

Abundance and freedom are built into nature—these are not just for the powerful, the rich, or those with one kind of skin tone, ideology, or from one nation-state. It’s about connection, balance, and the medicine nature and people already possess. 

There are no problems or poisons that don’t have solutions or antidotes. For persons, this means we have all we need to match and meet any challenge. Unfortunately, our culture has us “believe” this is not true.

John was determined to draw out these truths whenever he spoke, read poetry, created music, or appeared on film. He made these cosmologies pertinent and vital for our time. He emphasized that Native thoughts and ways of life are not archaic notions or quaint expressions, detached from the present. These are needed more than ever.

Native knowledge, as John would say, is intertwined with our DNA; they are genetic memory. We’ve been blocked by exploitation, oppression, historical trauma, capitalism, and runaway technology from these innate truths. But they don’t go away.

We are living in a time of uncovering and discovering—of revealing the real motive forces of the world, the true “apocalypse” (that’s the old Greek word for “lifting the veil”). This is knowledge that no one owns or controls, which means it’s available for anyone who seeks, that doesn’t require tuition, door fees, or membership in any group.

Over the years, many of my Native elder-teachers have moved on—including John C. Smith of the Dine (Navajo); Ed Young Man Afraid of His Horses (Lakota); Tlacaelel (Mexika); and Macuiltochtli (Mexika). Now another elder-teacher has walked with strength, upright, regardless of health issues here, to the other side. I send prayers, sage smoke, and many beautiful thoughts to John Trudell, his many friends, family, and students.

Listen as the trees sing

Their songs

In the wind lyrics and melodies

For the spirit senses

Songs of laughter and life

Timeless things in timeless places

Do not be afraid to be strong

Do not be afraid to love

But always remember…


All excerpts of poems from “Lines from a Mined Mind: The Words of John Trudell (2008 Fulcrum Publishing).


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