Indian Country Today Media Network: John Trudell: An Appreciation

By Hanay Geiogamah
December 11, 2015

Like so many of us American Indians who have spent the better part of our lives trying to find our place in the world in American life and in tribal life John Trudell was born and grew up dirt poor in the wind-swept openness of the prairies of Nebraska. He was part of a half-broken family, often having to wear worn-down shoes to school, constantly deflecting taunts from all those others on the school bus whose homes were well-heated in the winter, and who surely had breakfast and a good lunch. He shared a lot of his life story with me when he and I were writing a script for a one-person theater play about his life with the apt title of “Permanent Paranoia.”

This was at UCLA around 1999-2000, where I was teaching and where Mr. Trudell was taking a break from his activism and spoken-word concerts and performances to capture some of the important details of his stunning life story and shape them into a narrative he could share with many people in theaters in Indian country, across America, and the world. We created a pretty good first act, we agreed, and then we came to an unexpectedly challenging phase of the story, the chronological period from about 1979 to the early 1980s, when he began transforming into an artist and performer.

I sensed that this was because John was not egocentric, that he found talking about himself, about “me” and “my work” and his “art” and his personal point of view difficult and alien to his true inner nature and self, particularly as an Indian person. This is not an unfamiliar trait with many creative American Indians, and I have located its origins in the collective realities and experiences of tribal life, of being born and growing up as part of a group of people, a very large extended family. Also, this is where the play was going to start taking on more theatricality, more staging and performance elements, more pizzazz as entertainment, and John sensed that this was going to be difficult. He wasn’t quite ready for this.