Thinking Like a Human: John Trudell’s Dream

Graffiti Man’s Got Something to Say

“We have to really think like human beings. And, just accept the reality of now. And, the reality of now is that the system is unfair, and it’s not gonna be fair. This system is designed to exploit and oppress. That’s the way this civilization is built. That’s what makes it run. So we need to recognize that — I think when we recognize it, and really understand that, that we will think more clearly about how to deal with things.” – John Trudell

I always tell people that my favorite singer-songwriter/poets are: Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Smokey Robinson and Willie Nelson. And, that my favorite poet is John Trudell. Here’s why:

Last week there was a protest at the State Capitol against Oregon’s plans to give away water rights to a voluminous, pure Sacred Spring to Nestle Corporation for bottling and export, i.e. profit on a public resource. In this case it’s not even rightly a public resource, as its Native ownership in perpetuity is covered under an 1855 Treaty between the US Government and four River Tribes.


200 people gathered on the Capitol steps to hear from representatives of the River Nations.  The unprecedented event lifted spirits. As Joan Baez noted, “Activism is the antidote to despair.”

“White people don’t seem to have many Elders. They do have a lot of oldsters.” – John Trudell

I started talking with some of the younger Natives there. Word had spread that John Trudell was going to be coming to Hempstalk again, an annual Portland gathering celebrating all things cannabis and hemp.  All were planning on attending.  A 20-something dressed in her beautiful Native dress, said, “For me and my friends, John Trudell is the Elder we listen to the most.”

I was deeply touched by that, knowing John’s remarkable history and being a friend and ally (I wrote a short bio on John in the CounterPunch anthology “Red States Rebels”).  While this young woman and her friends unofficially see John as Elder, how one actually becomes an official Elder varies. A couple of my Native friends went to their Longhouse one day for a Ceremony and some of the elder Spiritual leaders (all women for this band) came out and said “We’d like to introduce you to our newest Elders.” And, that was it. My friends, now officially Elders, had no prior notice; there is no unseemly lobbying for the title; there is no refusing the honor; they just are expected to rise to the occasion and everyone else is expected to respect them as Elders. The accumulated experience and wisdom that comes with age is revered; as opposed to the general US culture which seems to see aging as a disease.


John Trudell at Portland Hempstalk 2014.

From Political to Personal

It’s easy to see why young Natives would see John as a respected voice. Once John decided that he wanted to, as he puts it “do my part to advance evolution” and the best way he could was to write and perform poetry dealing with the things that really matter, he started going with his good buddy Quiltman to Native Lands across the land to perform for Native youth as Tribal Voice, with John reading his poetry while Quilt sang traditional songs and doing Q&A sessions with Native youth groups. The two were not just providing a positive role model; they spoke directly to the concerns of these often marginalized youth.

Wazi’s Dream

John’s being the young, handsome, articulate (as the FBI consistently notes/fears in their 17,000-page dossier on John) spokesperson for the Alcatraz Occupation; his Chairmanship of the American Indian Movement (AIM); The Longest Walk – John as Warrior…John’s subsequent acting career in some of the seminal Native-positive movies… are all known to many. Those who haven’t kept up with or don’t know of him as poet/philosopher are missing out and listening to his latest CD with the great band Bad Dog is one excellent way to catch up. Those who already are familiar with the essence of John’s current message will be thrilled.

While any Tribal Voice or JT and Bad Dog CDs are worthy of a deep listen (I especially like the original AKA Graffiti Man with the late, great Jesse Ed Davis and Blue Indians), John’s latest CD with Bad Dog, “Wazi’s Dream” is a must…All sixteen tracks definitely have something to say.

Trudell has perfected his voice – musing on Life, Death, Love and “the private hidden negatives most everyone self projects.” John’s poetry provides a realistic, not starry-eyed, definitely not sugarcoated map for moving beyond those “negatives.”

”the most dangerous lies are self told diminishing self esteem

when delusion takes the place of seeing our own goodness

judgments devour the sacred of seeing sacreds from within

the mistakes that get made along the way are truths to learn”

— When Not to Lie, Wazi’s Dream

Bad Dog has been John’s band for years now. The band also has perfected backing John’s words. Mark Shark is an exceptional lead guitarist…as good as any you’ll find playing with major label bands. He also does backing vocals. Ricky Eckstein is a jack-of-all-trades with the band; mainly percussion, keyboards, backing vocals and coordinating recordings. The talented Billy Watts has played guitar on most of their CDs. Glenn Nishida has been the long-time Recording Engineer.

And, then there is Quiltman. Quilt’s magnificent traditional singing completes the picture. He also plays traditional rattles/percussion. The musicians’ excellent singing is on full display in Wazi’s Dream.

I find it hard to put into words any regular sort of review of Wazi’s Dream. (I’d have a hard time putting into words just how much John means to me.) John Trudell’s own words speak so vibrantly and significantly. It’s best to just recommend all buy and listen to what the warrior/poet of my generation has to say in quiet by yourself. It can be had thru many on-line sites.

Here’s a taste: Humbler and the Arrogants.


Mural by Gregg Deal.

Hempstalk 2015

Better yet. Come hear John and band live.

 John Trudell and Bad Dog headline this year’s Portland Hempstalk this coming weekend, October 17th  and 18th.  The annual event is held at Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park, site of most major Portland large social events like the exceptional  July 4th Blues Festival. It’s the first Hempstalk since Oregon voters ended Cannabis Prohibition – the dawn of a new a era. Trudell and Bad Dog hit the stage at 6:00 on Saturday night.

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MICHAEL DONNELLY has been an environmental activist since before that first Earth Day. He was in the thick of the Pacific Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign; garnering some collective victories and lamenting numerous defeats. He can be reached at pahtoo@aol.com

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