By Cynthia Oi
IN his younger days, John Trudell was an activist. With a Santee Sioux heritage, he fought to bring the plight of native people to the American consciousness. He was spokesman during the Indians of All Tribes Occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969. He was a leader of the American Indian Movement for six years.
His activism drew the attention of the FBI, which compiled a 17,000-page file on him.
Then, in February 1979 -- a few days before his 33rd birthday, 12 hours after he had led a march to the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. -- his wife Tina, their three children and Tina's mother died in a fire that destroyed their home on the Shoshone Paiute reservation in Nevada.
"Murdered," Trudell said. "It's very simple. They were murdered."
Twenty-two years later, Trudell no longer considers himself an activist but doesn't like to define himself by what he isn't.
What: John Trudell and Bad Dog in concert
Date: 7 p.m. tomorrow
Place: Campus Center ballroom, University of Hawai'i at Manoa
Also: Trudell and traditional singer-drummer Quiltman, 7 p.m. Saturday, Maui Community College student lounge, call (808)-873-0231; 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Kaua'i War Memorial Convention Center, call (808)-335-8588; 7 p.m. Monday, Palace Theatre in Hilo, call (860)-490-0044
Cost: All performances free
"We conduct a great deal of our lives based on our inabilities," he said, puffing on a hand-rolled cigarette while sitting under a tree near Hemenway Hall at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.
He prefers to present himself with a personal outline of his skills.
"I'm not an actor, but I can act. I'm not a poet, but I write poetry. I'm not a musician, but I do music. I'm not a political activist, but I do activism."
He's not being contradictory. "These are just things I do, not who I am."
Trudell is in the islands for the second time in two years; although he stopped in Hawaii during a stint in the Navy, "those don't count."
Last year, he gave a reading at UH. This time around, he's brought his band, "Bad Dog," to perform.
It was through writing and anger that Trudell extracted himself from the loss of his family.
"The poetry, the writing kept me alive. Anger kept me alive," he said. "Anger is a healthy thing, although we live in a society that tells us to manage our anger, to suppress it. If you accept your anger, if you understand that it's OK to be angry, you won't go mad. The madness would have destroyed me. There's no coherency to madness."
Writing wasn't totally foreign to him. He had written many of his own speeches while leading AIM. As he began to rebuild himself, he found that "lines would come to me," so many of them that in 1981, he published a book of poetry, "Living in Reality."
A year later, he met Jackson Browne, the singer, composer and musician.
"Jackson is one of the people who, what I'm going to call spirits, put in my life. He appeared in my life at a time when I need this ally.
"I mean, I'm coming out of an activist world, my whole is completely wrecked, I'm wrecked, everything is messed up, just destroyed. And I'm trying to figure out, 'How do I stay, how do I stay.'
"He took me into a completely different world of music and I had no restrictions, no rules put on me. I just had access. He gave me sanctuary, he gave me shelter when I needed it.
"I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing without Jackson."
Another crucial connection was with the late guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, a Kiowa from Oklahoma who had played with such greats as Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Browne (the guitar solo on "Doctor My Eyes.")
Their collaboration produced "AKA Grafitti Man," a rock album Dylan praised as the best of 1986, followed by two other albums.
His newest recording, "Blue Indians," won three Year 2000 Native American Music Awards.
"It was like Jackson took me into a store and showed me clothes, and Jesse dressed me and put me on stage," he said with a raspy chuckle.
These days, Trudell lives in Los Angeles and travels to various parts of the country, giving talks, making music.
"I'm almost like a migrant worker. I work when the work is there. So I have days when I'm very, very busy and stretches when I'm just killing time."
Besides the poetry and the band, Trudell has had a certain amount of success in film. He portrayed an activist in "Thunderheart" with Val Kilmer and Sam Shepard. His most recent role was the radio DJ in "Smoke Signals," Sherman Alexie's award-winning movie.
"What I stay elusive to is that I'm a role model. I refuse to be. I don't want to be a leader. I learned from my own lack of perception that I don't want to be any of those things.
"I'm me. I've narrowed it down to I'm me. It turned out I can do many things, but if I say I'm just one of the things I do, then I'm limiting who I am," he said.
He hasn't abandoned social consciousness.
"The essence of what I am hasn't changed. It's only the front that has changed."
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