I sat down to write about John Trudell’s music, thinking to write the second in a series I’m calling “A Life in Art.” Back in November, I described the blogs in this series as “turning on a work of art—painting, sculpture, music, poetry, film, maybe even cooking—that has sustained me in a moment that yearned for consolation or fulfillment or the reassurance of beauty, the presence of the sublime.”
I sat down to think about Trudell dying three weeks ago, too young at 69, and then the news came through that the police officers who killed 12 year-old Tamir Rice would not be indicted. Rice’s mother heard the news along with everyone else, via an official statement from the prosecutor’s office. Across the U.S., people are calling on the Department of Justice to prosecute Tamir Rice’s killers.
I sat down to listen to the song called “Tina Smiled,” an achingly beautiful loving lament in Trudell’s characteristic spoken-word style, backed by the yearning guitar of the late Jesse Ed Davis and the drumming and chanting of Quiltman and others who later made up the core of Trudell’s band Bad Dog. Like so much of Trudell’s work, the song layers the exquisite and the shattered, the artist’s memory of love and pleasure side-by-side with his awareness of a deep brokenness at the heart of this society.
I have only words to express the effect it has on me, but if my body could speak, she would tell a story of a hand around her heart, a pressure that is both pleasure and pain. For me, Trudell’s work answers a lifelong question: how do we hold both the incredible gift of being alive, the vast beauty and moral grandeur that human beings create, and the vast cruelty, indifference, and surrendering of our power to heal that breaks the world’s heart every day?
Like Trudell, we go on breathing, staying awake for the sublime glimpses we are given. We do what we can to honor both the love and the loss, to repair the world. We call out all of the truths our mouths can muster. We use our gifts until they are gone.
Last time I saw her, Tina smiled
Woman, woman’s love
hands so gentle, eyes so wise.
Woman touch, I am taken.
World so undivided, where the highway flies
and somewhere a wild horse awakens
“Tina Smiled” is Trudell’s homage to his wife, Tina Manning, who was killed along with her mother and their children in 1979 when their home at the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada burned to the ground. Everytime I hear the song, I wait for Trudell’s steady voice to break, as if I hadn’t listened to the song a hundred times and marveled at his ability to persist, living into the complicated truth of love and loss.
So maybe it’s the right song after all, for a moment so wrong.
Trudell was a powerful and influential artist and activist of Santee Dakota and Mexican Indian heritage whose aesthetic reflected his age and the counterculture it spawned. Listen to the way his song “Baby Boom Che” describes his generation as belonging to Elvis’ army. It was my generation too, if that isn’t obvious from the ocean of ecstatic electric guitar music rippling through my blogs. For me, Trudell’s music brought it all together without so much as a hair’s breadth between the personal and the political.
World so undivided.
Trudell had been central to the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969-70, the Trail of Broken Treaties, the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972, and the occupation of Wounded Knee Village, after which he served as a spokesperson for the American Indian Movement until the death of his wife.
If you are interested in more about a life lived full-on, open-eyed, open-minded, open-hearted, there’s a detailed remembrance by Alex Jacobs on Indian Country Today and a different piece by Michael Donnelly on Counterpunch, also touching on Trudell’s environmental activism and advocacy for hemp and marijuana legalization.
Here’s “Crazy Horse,” from his Album Bone Days.