John Trudell - Biography

By J Poet

John Trudell has walked many paths in his life: champion of Native American rights, National Chairman of the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.,) speaker, writer and poet.  But it’s his more recent work as a “spoken word artist” and leader of a rockin’ blues band that has brought him to the attention of mainstream America.  His album AKA Grafitti Man (1986 Peace Company, 1992 Rykodisc ) recorded for his own label in 1986, was a major musical and artistic success. Bob Dylan said it was “the best album of the year; most people can only dream about doing work like this.” Kris Kristofferson, another fan, said “Trudell is a crazy lone wolf, a poet, prophet, preacher; a warrior full of pain and fun and laughter and love.” He’s gone on to release eight more original albums, including Blue Indians (1999 Inside Recordings) the first album released by Jackson Brown’s indie label and the riveting Bone Days (2002 Daemon) for Indigo Girl Amy Ray’s label.

Trudell came to performing after enduring unbelievable hardships. Growing up on the Santee Souix reservation, Trudell had been a troubled young man. He came from a loving, but poor family and had drifted from job to job finally enlisting in the Navy and serving in Vietnam from 1963-1967. When he found himself on Alcatraz during the Indians of All Tribes occupation he reconnected with his Native American roots. Trudell stayed with the Indians of All Tribes as it evolved into A.I.M., eventually becoming its National Chairman. It was in that capacity that he attended the trail of A.I.M. activist Leonard Peltier in 1978, where he was busted by the F.B.I. for “resisting arrest” after an alleged struggle in the hall outside the court room. Trudell did two weeks in jail and was warned to watch his mouth.  On his release, he led a march to F.B.I. headquarters in Washington D.C., where he burned an American flag. Twelve hours later, a “fire of unknown origin” swept through Trudell’s home on the Shoshone Piute reservation in Nevada, killing his wife Tina, his three children and Tina’s mother. The B.I.A. (Bureau of Indian Affairs) and other government agencies investigated and called the fire an accident. 

Trudell quit politics and began writing. In 1981 he published Living in Reality, a collection of poems. In 1982, he met Jackson Browne at an anti-nuclear demonstration. Browne suggested Trudell use music to get his message across to a wider audience. Trudell’s first album Tribal Voice (1983 Peace Company) featuring Trudell’s words backed by long time friend Quiltman’s traditional drumming and chanting.  A copy of the cassette frond its way to Jesse Ed Davis, a guitarist that had played with Dylan, Clapton, John Lennon and Jackson Browne - he played lead guitar on “Doctor My Eyes.” Davis introduced himself to Trudell by saying “I can make music for your words.”

Trudell and Davis put together a band and recorded the first version of AKA Graffiti Man (1986 Peace Company.) They quickly followed it up with Heart Jump Bouquet (1987 Peace Company) and This Isn’t El Salvador (1987 Peace Company.) Their constant touring brought them mainstream attention, but Jesse Ed died suddenly in 1988. Trudell re-evaluate his life again, and continued touring and recording.  In 1992 he was signed to Rykodisc, and recut portions of AKA Graffiti Man with Jackson Browne producing.  Ryko released Johnny Damas and Me in 1994, then Trudell joined Browne’s new label for Blue Indians (1999 Inside Recordings.) Blue Indians builds a metaphorical bridge between Native people, African Americans and other minorities scapegoated by a system that continues to turn America’s melting pot into a pressure cooker. On Bone Days (2002 Daemon) Trudell delved into his own mortality with another collection dripping with irony, dark humor and his uncompromising vision of an America gone wrong, produced by Angelina Jolie. Madness & The Moremes (2007 Sobeit Recordings) is a 27 track collection of new song/poems, with a few oldies cut with Jesse Ed Davis tossed in to plese long time fans.

Trudell’s intense performances have led several directors to request his talents.  He’s appeared in Jonathon Wack’s Pow Wow Highway, Steven Seagal’s On Deadly Ground and played the reservation DJ in Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals, a film based on short stories from Sherman Alexie’s collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven.


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