On the night of January 3, 1994, I was sitting in my kitchen while a Lake Superior blizzard howled outside. A program on the radio was broadcasting a talk recently given at Michigan Tech by John Trudell, a Santee Dakota artist, activist, and visionary. This man had an extra-ordinary mind, and it seized my complete attention. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It’s so rare and precious to experience powerfully clear thinking. Last week, 19 years later, I finally saw him in person, at the University of Oregon. It was good.
Trudell comes from a culture with an oral tradition, and he prefers the energy of live performances to sitting alone writing. He once carefully summarized his core philosophy in a five-page introduction he wrote for the book Of Earth and Elders. The documentary film Trudell does a memorable job of presenting the story of his life. He has created a number of CDs of spoken word poetry, and he is the venerated subject of many webpages and videos. The following paragraphs provide a sampler of his ideas.
John often introduces himself to an audience by announcing that he is crazy. The form of reality that our society considers “sane” and “normal” is way too weird, and he refuses to jump on that wacky bandwagon. He’s the opposite of normal, and he’s proud of it. If you don’t agree with him, it’s OK, he’s crazy.
All human beings are descendants of tribal people who were spiritually alive, intimately in love with the natural world, children of Mother Earth. When we were tribal people, we knew who we were, we knew where we were, and we knew our purpose. This sacred perception of reality remains alive and well in our genetic memory. We carry it inside of us, usually in a dusty box in the mind’s attic, but it is accessible.
Like every other region on Earth, the vast ancient forests of Europe were once home to many tribal peoples, folks who loved eating salmon and buffalo. They had a spiritual connection to their past and to their land. Unfortunately, the tribes of Europe were blindsided when hordes of Indo-European farmers invaded from the east, unleashing a tsunami of genocide.
The process of erasing their tribal memories began about 3,000 years ago. During the 500 years of the Inquisition (1250-1750), much of what had survived of the indigenous culture of old Europe was eliminated, as countless traditional people were tortured and burned alive (at least 100,000 to 2 million).
The perpetrators of this mass murder were predators who were deranged by a highly contagious spiritual disease that had nothing to do with race or culture. This malady lived in the mind, and it altered their perception of reality. As the Inquisition was winding down, many of these infected predators boarded ships and sailed to colonies in the Americas, where they terrorized the indigenous people for centuries. They were incredibly brutal people, because they were the offspring of a brutal, disease-ravaged civilization.
Trudell doesn’t hate Europeans for what they have done — you can’t be mad at people because they are infected with a disease. The invaders didn’t understand what they were doing, but they were spiritually responsible for their acts of genocide. They were pathologically paranoid, and could not tolerate the existence of people who thought in a different way. They were empty, lost, and afraid. They had forgotten what it meant to be human beings.
We are all human beings. “Human” is our physical form, the bones, flesh, and blood which are made from the minerals, fluids, and gases of the living world. “Being” is our spiritual component, our link to the power of the universe. All things on Earth, animate and inanimate, are spiritually alive.
The disease of technological society has damaged our perception of reality, and pulled us away from our power. We are constantly bombarded by inputs that insist that we are inadequate, undesirable, and unlovable. They grind away our self-respect, and reduce us to weak domesticated organisms — things to be controlled and exploited like livestock.
The disease poisons our spirits with feelings of sin, guilt, and shame. We don’t trust ourselves, or respect ourselves. We have no spiritual relationship to the future, and that’s insane. We are robbing our children to satisfy frivolous wants and needs. Each person is responsible for the violence perpetuated by the consequences of their purchases.
Our power resides in our connection to the Earth, our ability to think clearly, and our refusal to believe the illusions and deceptions of the oppressors. The foundation of our power is caring, respect, and responsibility. Learning is the path to healing, and learning begins with clear and coherent thinking. No medicine is more powerful than intelligence — if intelligence is used intelligently.
The environmental movement has had little success, because they tend to remain chained to the consumer mindset, riding in different coaches on the same train as the corporate folks. Progressives often spin their wheels because they tend to focus on the redistribution of wealth, not the protection of the Earth. Their complaints present no real threat to the industrial ruling class.
Trudell has zero respect for the political system of the industrial predators. Their government is a tool that’s useless for the pursuit of liberation and healing. He feels that the most effective way of expressing our truths is via culture and art, which is why he focuses on spoken word poetry. “All we can do is speak our truths. We can’t go and try to change people. We have to speak our truths.”
Trudell is not a fan of revolution — kill the killers. The root of the word “revolution” is revolve. If you begin with hatred for an oppressor, revolution will bring you around to a new oppressor, and nothing is gained. Instead of revolution, we should seek liberation from a sick value system. He has no quick and simple solutions to offer, because our problems are anything but simple.
Whites can’t heal themselves by imitating Native American spirituality. They need to explore their ancestry, and learn about their tribal origins. They need to remember who they are, and reconnect with their ancestral culture, and this is a lifelong learning process. But most of them don’t want to know about their past. Most of them know nothing about their great grandparents. They prefer to pursue spiritual shortcuts, because shortcuts take far less effort than walking the long and difficult path to genuine understanding, to remembering, to healing.
Protecting the Earth is at the core of what we must do. We are what power is truly about. “We have to assume our responsibilities as power, as individuals, as spirit, as people.” But first, we’ve got to like ourselves, accept ourselves. “We are the Human Beings. We are the land.”
Trudell, John, “Crazy Horse, We Hear What You Say,” the Introduction for Of Earth and Elders by Serle L. Chapman, Mountain Press, Missoula, Montana, 2002.
Trudell, Appaloosa Pictures, 2005, directed by Heather Rae, starring John Trudell.