May I Suggest ....

Philip Burnham / Indian Country Today
5/28/08

;Lines from a Mined Mind: The Words of John Trudell'

John Trudell, Santee Sioux, is a radical and a traditionalist all rolled into one. He's an outspoken political activist. He's a poet in the old tradition: he chants, he warns, he tells, he sings. And it all has the feel of being spontaneous, of coming off effortlessly as he speaks.

Fulcrum Publishing has just released ''Lines from a Mined Mind: The Words of John Trudell,'' a collection of poems and lyrics that spans the last 25 years. For anyone who has admired Trudell's career, whether in politics, music or film, it's worth a read.

Trudell is no stranger to the spotlight. He was a leader of the Alcatraz Island occupation that began in 1969 and chairman of the American Indian Movement through much of the 1970s. He was also involved with the 1972 occupation of the BIA building in Washington and the standoff at Wounded Knee II less than a year later.

A family tragedy, though, is at the center of this book and that caused Trudell's emergence as an artist.

Under intense observation by the FBI during the 1970s, Trudell is said to have had a dossier in the bureau amounting to 17,000 pages. In 1979, in full protest mode, he set fire to an American flag on the steps of the FBI building in Washington.

Within 24 hours of that incident, his wife, mother-in-law and three children perished in a house fire in Nevada, an ''accident'' alleged by Trudell to have been caused by the government. That disaster is what set him to writing, and is the real starting point of ''Lines,'' the first collection of his work.

After losing his family, Trudell sought an outlet for expression that politics couldn't provide. In the early 1980s, he began putting his poetry to music. Since then, he's recorded nearly a dozen albums, including several with Kiowa guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, before his untimely death in 1988, and earned the praise of such luminaries as Jackson Browne and Kris Kristofferson.

''Lines'' is an ambitious book, laying out a biting critique of contemporary materialism while it offers the consoling virtues of family, love and the healing powers of the earth.

Trudell's technique is simple. He relies on occasional rhyme and lots of repeated phrasing. The lines flow without punctuation; the phrases assemble themselves on the page like free-form images with easy, swaying conviction.

The lines gain force through repetition, piling up one on top of another. What seems rambling at first turns out to be a rolling kind of momentum that doesn't stop as long as there's another page to turn.

The poet moves from tender love poems, to critiques against the ''Great Programming'' of modern life, to a sad and moving account of the moment he learned of his family's death.

Most of these are song lyrics rather than poems, a reminder of poetry's musical roots in many traditions. In the pulsing rhythm of heartbeat, poetry was recited and sung to the accompaniment of music, usually by keepers of memory entrusted with the history of the tribe.

In fact, there's something of an echo of the Old Testament prophet in Trudell, who makes it a point to call down the wicked influence of ''Babylon'' on many of these pages. His spirit is a mix of patient tradition and a rebellious impulse to rid the world of evil.

The subject of a recent documentary, Trudell has an instinct for the spotlight. In addition to his music and poetry, moviegoers have seen him in ''Thunderheart,'' ''Smoke Signals'' and ''On Deadly Ground.'' He advised Robert Redford on ''Incident at Oglala,'' a documentary about the FBI shootout on Pine Ridge. Acting and performing have become his life, and he'll be touring soon to promote this collection.

In a brief forward, Louise Erdrich asks readers to give in to the force of passion in Trudell and submit to the urgency of his words, just to let go and follow the songs where they take them.

The only thing ''Lines'' really lacks is music. First penned as lyrics, the ''poems'' can't be heard in their original setting, accompanied by a thumping drum or a slashing guitar riff.

Readers will just have to use a little imagination.

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