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Interview: John Trudell, Poet and Songwriter – An Un-Mined Mind!

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Industrial tech no logic civilization is the mining process
The intelligence of each arriving human generation
Is programmed to perceive the reality that meets the needs
Of the industrial society each human generation arrive in
The human beings are individually and collectively mined… John Trudell; "Somewhere Inside My Head"; Lines From A Mined Mind Fulcrum Press 2008.

Huh? That was my reaction when I first read those lines from the introduction to the collected writings of John Trudell, Lines From A Mined Mind. What is this crazy on about with his "Mined Mind" shit. But you know the longer I stared at it, and the further I read on into his introduction and then his poetry, it actually began to make sense – at least around the edges.

You see I may not ever really fully understand what it means to be a Mined Mind, because my mind has been so successfully mined already. I like to think of myself as being an outsider, separate from the mainstream of society, if only because of my career choices in the past – the arts – and the fact that my political and religious affiliations tend to be along the lines of "none of the above". However, simply the fact that I'm willing to make those choices at all, keeps me playing the game and being sucked into the maelstrom of our society. My mind has been mined because I believe that by doing what I do it makes me different, maybe even superior, to a great many people out there. Yet just the fact that I think that way, comparing myself to everybody else, means that I'm still just as much a part of it as everybody else because its the yardstick I measure myself against.
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Okay so I'm not doing anything to help you either understand what the hell it was he was talking about or giving you any insights to just who this guy is – which is after all the point of this exercise. It's supposed to be an interview with John Trudell – writer, lyricist, and former political activist – yet I'm babbling on about belonging or not belonging to society. Well you see people like John – they don't have a choice – when you're own government declares war on you for simply asking to be treated the way everybody else is treated, you get the hint real fast that your presence is not appreciated.

Now that's bound to change the way you look at things, and get you thinking outside the lines that make up the carefully constructed boxes that were supposed to think inside of. Talking to John made me realize just how big the gulf is between somebody whose really free, and what I think of as being free. I don't know if that's going to come across in what you're about to read – it pales in comparison to what I remember our conversation sounding like – but I hope by the end you come away with a clearer picture of John and a better understanding of where he's at, and the mining process that's being carried out on your mind on a daily basis.

Can we start off with some of the typical biographical details – where were you born and all that?

I was born in 1946 near Omaha Nebraska and split my childhood half and half between living in town with my parents and living on the Santee Sioux Reservation just outside of Omaha with my grandparents. I dropped out of high-school because it wasn't working for me, and at seventeen I joined the navy. I did my four-year hitch, even though it wasn't really right for me, and got out in 1967. I did a couple of years of collage after that, but that didn't work out because of some political shit, and I was denied something that I should have got credit for.

This might be a stupid question, I don't know, but how would your experiences as a child have been different than your so-called typical kid growing up in the suburbs?

Well, like I said I travelled back and forth between the two worlds, living half my time on the reservation and half my time off it, and what I saw as the major difference between the two worlds was that while everyone on the reservation was poor, there was a real community, one that had common roots and a culture that tied it together. Off the reservation, in the non-native world it was more about competition – more emphasis on material stuff and class distinctions.

You know back in those days the emphasis was on finishing high school and getting a good job, no talk of university or collage for us, right, but I never felt like I was fitting out there – that's why I tired the military, and I don't regret that either, but it was all part of looking for a place where I fit. It was only on the reservation where I felt that sense of belonging – that's where my cultural/social peer group was.

I was just curious, up in Canada we had the Residential School system and as late as the 1970s kids were still being taken away from their families – wasn't there the equivalent in the States?

Yeah, the boarding schools, but they weren't happening everywhere, and my dad kept me out of them – he also protected me from religion, so I was able to avoid a lot of the stuff I know some other people had to put up with.

What galvanized you to become politically active?

Well like I said I didn't feel like I fit anywhere in the non-native world. You know – no matter what you did, a job, school, whatever, you would have to be subservient to authority if you want to get ahead, and I just wasn't into playing that game. So when I went to Alcatraz (The All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native Americans from 1969 -1971) it was like getting back to my community – the place where I fit best.

You were part of the All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz from 69-71 and them Chairman of AIM from 73 – 79. Those were some volatile years for the politically active Indian – Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Shootout, Anna Mae Asquash. Reading about it – it appears to have been a time of great hope and excitement mixed with fear and confusion. Have you had the opportunity to reflect on those years and are you able to give your assessment of it in general?

Our grievances were just, but the American government declared war on us and fought us for all they were worth. There were great highs and great lows, but we were motivated by good intentions. I know some tribes are better off now because of what we did, but I think the most important thing that came out of it was that our energy and our spirit was rekindled. There was a revitalization of who we were as a people.

Our confusions were those of any human searching for identity, of any human being searching for a way of being. Now when I look back on it I see it as part of my life experience where I might not have realized the lesson I was learning at the time, but at some point I got it.

From reading biographies about you there's the appearance that you became a poet and song writer over night because that's when you first started doing it professionally. Prior to the early eighties when you started recording, had you ever given any thought to music or poetry being part of you life?

Nope – never. It wasn't anything I had planned on doing. I started writing in 1979, although I'd always been influenced by music, it wasn't with the intent of doing music. It's just that back in 1978 I knew things were going to change – activism had served its purpose and I could see it had run its course. Then the fire, when Tina, her mom, and the kids died (In 1979 just after John Trudell led a protest against FBI headquarters a mysterious fire burnt down his home killing his wife, her mother, and their children) that was the final severing point for me – the world would never be the same after that. I was falling through realities and writing became something for me to hang onto.

How did you get started with music — you released your first album Tribal Voice in 1983 on your own label — how did that come about, and what kind of music was it?

I had met Jackson Browne around this time, and was just hanging out with him. Now that I was spending time in recording studios and hanging out with musicians I began wondering what these lines I'd been writing would sound like set to music – you see I don't think of myself as a poet or a song writer – I write lines. I decided that I wanted to use the old music – the drum and the singers and set the lines to what I knew best then. Jackson produced and we made Tribal Voice.

It was after that that I met the Kiowa guitar player Jesse Ed Davis – actually I don't think of him as a Kiowa guitar player, just one hell of a great guitar player. Anyway Jesse introduced me to electric music. He wrote music for my lines and we put out our first album in 1986 AKA Graffiti Man. I was still doing the spoken word thing then and Jesse took me out on the road with a band and got me playing in clubs so I could learn what the heck it was like to be a musician, 'cause I didn't know anything about doing that sort of thing. We did that for three years until Eddie died.

I interviewed Martha Redbone a while back, and she said that as a native pop musician one of the hardest things she faced was overcoming people's expectations of what she as a Native woman should be doing musically. What's been your experience with this like?

I just blow it off – no insult to anybody or anything but I can't be anything other than what I am. If people have expectations they just have to deal with them… I'm me and that's who I represent – I can't claim to represent all natives or anything like that, the only ones I might represent are the ones who agree with what I'm saying.

I know, there's this whole Fascism of Romanticism thing going on – people have created an image they want natives to fit into – some sort of fantasy ideal that makes us easy for them to say – that's what they are, but you know that's not reality. I happen to be native and male, but I am who I am and that's how I participate in reality – as a human being – rather than as a race or a sex.

When I reviewed Lines From A Mined Mind I tried to explain what you meant by a "Mined Mind" but I'm not sure how clear I was on it – can you take me through it?

Well you read the introduction right (Me: Yeah but you know I'm still not sure whether I got what you were after) Okay they've got us believing that believing is thinking, but the reality is we're not really thinking cause believing is accepting without thinking about it. Because we're not thinking we end up focusing on our fears, doubts and insecurities. The "being" part of human is being mined and that allows us to be programmed by the beliefs they tell us is thinking.

If we ever want to use the power of creative thinking we must become focused on the conscious power of thought. It's also got to be an awareness that's beyond just the self – it's a recognition of the power of intelligence in of itself without anything tied to it. It's all about energy, because thought is energy, and when you take energy away from humans we're flat – we're mined out.

You write about a variety of topics in your poetry – what does it take for a topic to inspire you?

I don't really think in terms of being inspired you know, sometimes the lines just appear, sometimes I have to go hunting for them. I'm not really that sure what sets the line in motion, sometimes I'm inspired by desperation when I start (laughs)

Your work stands on its own as poetry, yet you perform a good deal of the verse collected in Mined Mind as songs. What are you looking for the music to do with your lyrics?

As an art form music has its own value, but like I said I'm not a poet or a song writer – I write lines – I guess you could call me a liner (laughs). What's great is that they work with music. The way we work as a band is that I write the lines first and then the guys in the band take them and we find the right texture to go with them. That way the music becomes an extension of the lines.

I've always really liked spoken word 'cause we can all talk and we are all used to being talked too. (laughs) There's something really direct about it though – I'm not really sure how it works, most of what I do is based on hunches, I'm just glad when it does work.

What do you hope that listeners, or readers take away from your work?

I don't believe in hope – hope is a sedative – it's something you do instead doing something – you sit around and "hope" things will get better. You know when Pandora was given her box of evils by the Gods and told not to open it, and she did anyway letting loose all the evils on the world, the last of the things that was in that box was hope!

Okay let me re phrase that – what do you want people to take away from your work?

Hah, whatever they can get out of it – I want it to make sense to them you know – Hell I'm crazy so it's always a relief when people get a little something from it you know? (laughs)

We wrapped it up after that, mainly because my head was spinning with the various stuff that we had talked about. Talking to person who genuinely doesn't give a fuck, who is really free, can be a very confusing thing for the rest of us who are still hung up on the various things that are built into the system that hold us back and keep us in check. I'm sure there's lots of you out there who are going to dismiss what he says as bullshit, and I guess that's your right to do so. However I hope that some of you will be able to get an inkling of what's going on in a genuinely un-mined mind. Don't worry about being confused – in fact take it as a good sign – when things stop making sense it's the first sign that you're starting to think clearly.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.