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Year of Trudell

At 69, musician, writer and Native American rights icon John Trudell has a half-dozen projects in the works, including one born out of joint SFIM performance last year with the deejays of A Tribe Called Red.

John Trudell visiting with family and friends at Hempstalk 2014 in Portland, Oregon. (Wonder Knack / www.wonderknack.com)

John Trudell visiting with family and friends at Hempstalk 2014 in Portland, Oregon. (Wonder Knack / www.wonderknack.com)

JOHN TRUDELL (Santee Dakota) has a lot to look forward to the rest of this year: A new album with his band, Bad Dog, a new book of poetry, and an eagerly awaited collaboration with A Tribe Called Red.

But an idea he and the band members of Scatter Their Own had while sharing a stage at the Austin, Texas-based SXSW music festival in March also has the 69-year-old poet, musician, actor, author and activist anticipating the coming months.

“We want to put together and take a show to Pine Ridge,” Trudell says from his home in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Teenage suicide—this whole thing happening up there. We want to show them somebody cares about what’s happening.”

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota Nation, has seen a rise in youth suicides and suicide attempts since December 2014, which has prompted tribal officials to declare a state of emergency.

Trudell was moved to action alongside Scatter Their Own’s Scotti Clifford and Juliana Brown Eyes-Clifford (both Oglala Lakota), with support from the First Peoples Fund.

“Instead of giving attention to the negative, we [are organizing the show to showcase Oglala Native youth poetry,” says Scotti Clifford. “[Scatter Their Own] believe that by working with John and [First Peoples Fund] we can model brilliance and solidarity. By combining music and spoken word, we will be honoring the youth, as well as remembering the ancestors.”

The free event will take place sometime this summer—visit www.scattertheirown.com for updated event information—and feature the music of Bad Dog, Scatter Their Own, and maybe others, Trudell envisions.

“It’s this whole idea of remembering our ancestors, something I personally would like to be put on all of us in these living generations, that as we’re thinking of our ancestors, we’re loving our youth,” Trudell says. “We do care … There’s not much we can do about any of it, but care.”

Video tribute by Taté Walker, from footage taken while Trudell spoke in Colorado Springs in April 2015.


The concert would be a focal point in a season filled with Trudell achievements.

At some point this summer—with Trudell, small details like dates hinder his go-with-the-flow vibe, so he says he doesn’t keep track of them—his band of 30-some years, Bad Dog, will release its 12th album, Wazi’s Dream. At the time of this interview, the album was in post-production but attempts to review any new tracks were unsuccessful.

Trudell describes the new music as “… just like my old music, I guess,” so fans of Bad Dog’s laid-back blues rock and slam poetry-style jams won’t be disappointed.

In addition to collaborating with musicians like Scatter Their Own, Trudell also recently worked with A Tribe Called Red to produce a song both artists are keeping under wraps. Guillaume Decouflet, manager for A Tribe Called Red, confirms the collaboration with Trudell and said the track will drop sometime in the fall. “That’s all we can say right now,” Decouflet wrote via email.

Trudell says the collaboration was born out of a joint appearance at the 2014 Santa Fe Indian Art Market, where Trudell opened for A Tribe Called Red.

“I like them because they’re a blend of ancient and futuristic,” says Trudell. “It’s evolution is how I look at it. What’s going on now with a lot of younger Native artists has been going on for a long time, it’s just that these artists are evolving.

“I kind of evolved out of politics and into the arts,” he continues, referencing his time as spokesperson for the Indians of All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969 to 1971, and as chairman of the American Indian Movement from 1973 to 1979.

“When I made the transition there were very few Native artists,” Trudell says. “I thought maybe I could be an influence to younger people…. I look at where we’re at now, and how many Native artists there are now, and they’re writing their own material.”

Trudell says he’s impressed with how engaged the young musicians are in their communities, and how issues are addressed in their music. In 2013, Scatter Their Own released “Taste the Time,” noted for its antipollution message urging listeners to protect water. A Tribe Called Red released “The Road” in 2012, “In solidarity with Idle No More and Chief Theresa Spence,” according to their SoundCloud profile.

“That’s a representation of the evolution of our reality,” Trudell says. “It’s not politics. Not bullshit talking. Change can come with art. My feeling is that for us as Native people, our authenticity comes through our culture and art – it expresses the reality of who we are.”

“That’s a representation of the evolution of our reality,” Trudell says. “It’s not politics. Not bullshit talking. Change can come with art. My feeling is that for us as Native people, our authenticity comes through our culture and art – it expresses the reality of who we are.” 

Trudell remains busy even outside of music. In the fall, Fulcrum Publishing will publish Trudell’s Coyote Logics, his fourth book of poetry, and the second book from Fulcrum, which also published Lines from a Mined Mind (2008).

When he’s not writing poetry or music, Trudell’s passion lies with Hempstead Project Heart, a hemp advocacy group Trudell co-founded with Willie Nelson.

“I’d like to see Native communities growing hemp on their reservations, where applicable, to build a long-term economic base,” Trudell explains, noting that Hempstead encourages growing industrial hemp over marijuana. In December 2014, the U.S. federal government announced it would not prosecute Native Americans for growing or selling marijuana on sovereign tribal lands. He also is working on an autobiography.

“No one’s really thinking about hemp yet, but – and I’ve been smoking pot for 50 years – the reality is hemp is more practical in the longterm. There’s no corruption. And it’s environmentally friendly.”

Trudell doesn’t think of himself as a political activist, although it’s a title many of his fans associate him with.

“I’m just me. I am who I am. I write and perform and do different things, but that’s all just me. My consciousness is what it is and I address it just like that.”

Trudell continues, “I’m working as a writer, so I often express my views through that medium, because I think there are many things we need to be aware of and need to think about that pertain to our realities. But I don’t promote politics. They’re there. You can’t ignore them. But for us, as Native people, significant change doesn’t come through politics. We need to respect our intelligence and move beyond politics.”

Taté Walker (Mniconjou Lakota) is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. She is editor of Native Peoples magazine.