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Book Review: Lines From a Mined Mind – The Words of John Trudell

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John Trudell has released through Fulcrum Publishing an anthology of his poetry from his 25-year recording career and it is a powerful moving read from a man who has a lot to say on the state of the world and how we relate to each other. Mr. Trudell, a Santee Sioux, is a well known Native activist, and much of his poetry draws on Native imagery and concerns, but he is also interested in drawing parallels to oppression whereever and however it is experienced. His message focuses on healing, searching for inclusion rather than exclusion of viewpoints.  Lines From a Mined Mind blends a delicate lyricism with passionate political criticism and left me determined to hear Mr. Trudell perform the poetry as the songs they were created to be.

Trudell’s style is to tell his truths simply and sincerely, mixing different visions and voices as he moves from very personal stories to hard political commentary. His insight is based on a life of activism laced with personal tragedy. He was spokesperson for the Indian of All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969 to 1971 and Chairman of the American Indian Movement (AIM) from 1973 to 1979. In 1979, Trudell’s wife, three children and mother-in-law were killed in a fire of unknown origin and it was this tragedy that compelled the artist to find his voice.

The book opens with “Listening,” an excerpt of which lays out the spirit of Trudell’s philosophy:

The Power of Understanding
Real connections to spirit
Is meaning our resistance
Our struggle
Is not sacrifice lost
It is
Natural energy properly used

To Trudell, we all need to engage in the definition of our culture and our mores, rather than leaving it to those who benefit from exploitation. This shared responsibility to speak up would lead to a feeling of connection to each other and to nature, something the poet feels has been increasingly lost in our materially-based culture.

Trudell’s own voice shifts from gentle lyricism in a song like “Brown Earth Color Woman” (“When I step into the brown of her eyes / Brown Earth Color Woman / Takes me into the secret of her sighs / Gentling me in a balance of passion”) to the anger and pain found in “But This Isn’t El Salvador”:

    They told me you were dead
    I died
    They told me your mother was dead
    I died again
    They told me the kids were dead
    I died with each name

The poet can move from a smoldering critique of materialism in “Material Junkies” and of the politics of war in “Arms Race” to the poignant sweetness of “Little Daughter,” and the different narrative voices keep the material fresh and engaging. Trudell mines myth and fable, from Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm to Native imagery, to craft his potent visions and weave a very personal moving commentary on what’s gone wrong in modern society. These are protest songs delivered honestly and they work.

The artist began recording his poems to music in 1982 and has released eight albums, many made with legendary Kiowa guitarist, Jesse Ed Davis. The albums mix rock, blues, traditional indigenous music, and folk to produce an eclectic mix of protest music. Rolling Stone’s assessment of 1992’s AKA The Grafitti Man was that it was a “moving, shape-shifting, rock & roll treatise on the state of the world.” Having read Lines From a Mined Mind, I’m ready to track down the original recordings to savour the full effect of Trudell’s poetry. However, the words have their own power and I recommend this collection wholeheartedly to anyone interested in Trudell’s artistry and politics.

About Gerry Weaver