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What would it take for you to believe there was a conspiracy against you? One involving the U.S. government? One in which your loved ones had been murdered?
Wherever John Trudell's life leads, he will always be able to close his eyes and return to February 1979. Twelve hours after he burned an American flag in front of the FBI building in Washington, D.C., his wife Tina, her mother and the couple's three children died in a mysterious blaze. For Trudell there has never been any question that the fire at his Nevada home was a payback.
Numbed by the tragedy, Trudell resigned his presidency of the American Indian Movement (AIM), an office he had held since he helped found the organization with Russell Means, Dennis Banks and others in 1973. Drawn to the Native American cause by the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969, Trudell, himself half Santee Sioux, became the movement's chief visionary and knife-edged orator.
But after the fire, Trudell was overwhelmed by silence. He withdrew from the world. Even old friends like Cree singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, who calls him "a person in control of a powerful righteousness," were unable to comfort him. Finally, in desperation, he turned to words--to writing what he calls "his lines."
These days his lines become the topic of nearly every conversation John Trudell has. If he's not reciting them on a musical album, like his recent AKA Grafitti Man, he's trying to remember them in front of a camera. Trudell plays himself in two current films: Thunderheart, a murder mystery in which he appears as Jimmy Looks Twice, the spiritual leader of the fictional Aboriginal Rights Movement, and the documentary Incident at Oglala, in which he speaks about the real-life model for ARM. (See related story in Reel Stuff, page 40.)
But mostly Trudell has worked as a musician recently, writing and singing his own songs. Besides his appearance in Incident at Oglala, Trudell collaborated with Jackson Browne on the movie's score.
Trudell's acting in both films has been universally hailed as having a rare passion and integrity. In Oglala, it's clear what's made Trudell such a threat to the white establishment. With his flashing eyes and articulate delivery, he injects a zealot's fire into one of AIM's most well-worn lines: "We are caught between a past and present in a society that wants to deny us a future."
The flames that charred Trudell's life 13 years ago were ruled "of undetermined origin." Both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the FBI concluded that the fire that destroyed Trudell's home in Duck Valley on the Shoshone Paiute reservation in Nevada began in the fireplace. After cursory investigations, both agencies declared the case closed.
But for Trudell, there is no question that the two burnings--one in Washington, D.C., and one in Nevada--are linked. When asked about it today, he uses words like "arson" and "murder." It's clear that believing in a conspiracy has become second nature for him. In recent years, he's learned that his own FBI file numbers somewhere in excess of 17,000 pages. "What happened to my family tells me that I was closer to the truth than even I knew," Trudell says from a home he's staying at in Los Angeles. Still believing himself under FBI surveillance, he has no permanent address. "Not having a permament address sounds great, but it has its drawbacks, believe me," he says.
"What my FBI file reflects to me is their absurdity," he continues, his voice taking on an intensity that has become customary. "Seventeen thousand pages is a lot of trees to assassinate to spy on someone. On the other hand, I don't know how many agents I'm keeping off the streets, but if they're spying on me, at least they're not out killing someone else."
In April the independent record label Rykodisc released AKA Grafitti Man, a compilation of Trudell's previous cassette-only releases. Much of Trudell's musical career is due to his friendship with Jackson Browne, whom he met the same year his family was murdered. He began appearing with Browne at benefits and spending time with him in the studio.
In 1982 Trudell began to set his lines to music. His first attempt was called Tribal Voice. A simple recording, nearly primitive by AKA Grafitti Man standards, Tribal Voice features Trudell chanting and reading his poetry over drums. Unsatisfied, Trudell searched for a collaborator who could give his talents a shape and direction. In 1985 he found that partner in Oklahoma-born Jesse Ed Davis. A Kiowa, Davis was a musical legend by the time he and Trudell joined forces to form the Grafitti Band. A guitarist, singer and songwriter, Davis had toured with Browne, all the former Beatles and, most prominently, Bob Dylan. Dylan, in fact, gave the duo its biggest boost when he told Rolling Stone that Davis and Trudell's first album together (also called AKA Grafitti Man) was "one of the best albums of 1986." He then had it played over the public-address system during his own 1987 concert tour.
The new Rykodisc album contains several cuts from that tape as well as tunes from Heart Jump Bouquet, the second Davis/Trudell collaboration. In 1988 Davis died unexpectedly, leaving Trudell to forge on with his band's second guitarist, Mark Shark. Together, Shark and Trudell recorded and released Fables and Other Realities. The success of that disc won Trudell and the band a spot as the opening act on a tour by Australian alternative band Midnight Oil.