Art Doc of the Week | Trudell

“If I say anything that you don’t agree with, let’s just leave it at we don’t agree about it, alright?”

                 – John Trudell, from the documentary Trudell

“There’s no clear thought being exercised right now in the American public. They’re allowing the insanity of the leaders to make decisions that really are not in the best interest of the public. They’re not in the best interests of the children of the public; they’re not in the best interests of the grandchildren of the public. They’re not in the best interests of the earth. They’re not in the best interests of anyone.” – John Trudell

The hugeness of the standoff at Standing Rock – with Native Americans not only taking a principled stand on the stewardship of the land and water itself, but also throwing a timely and harsh light on age-old, intermingled corruption of government, corporations, law enforcement that protects & serves the interests of the powerful over the powerless, and a complicit media. That all of this began even before the muddled intrigue around the recent presidential election and now stands as a harbinger of what likely lies in store for the country is horrifying. If it were scripted in a work of fiction it’d all be deemed on-the-nose and over the top.

Director Heather Rae’s 2006 documentary Trudell, about the life and work of late Native American poet/actor/activist John Trudell, speaks directly to this moment – specifically how the debacle unfolding at Standing Rock encapsulates centuries of brutal practices against Native people while underscoring American indifference toward anyone who isn’t white, wealthy and politically connected. Eerie in its timeliness (or maybe timelessness,) it’s a searing indictment of the government’s treatment of Native people and earth itself. Trudell emerges as prophet and hero as we see footage of him at political rallies and poetry readings, with his poetry read over the soundtrack throughout the film.Trudell’s weakness is that it gets so ensnared in the process of gold-plating its subject that it undercuts its own portrait of him. He’s almost saintly.

John Trudell. Courtesy JOHN CROFT/RPA/MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE.

John Trudell. Courtesy JOHN CROFT/RPA/MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE.

A spiritual being (in the film, Robert Redford compares him to the Dalai Lama,) Trudell’s activism and art were one and the same, rooted in reverence for the earth and horror at the terms of what we call civilization. Early in the film, he speaks of childhood dreams and visions that tapped into memories from a time before he was even born, and links it all to his sense of self and politics. Both fellow indigenous people and celebrity stalwarts of the American left (Redford, Jackson Browne, Val Kilmer, Kris Kristofferson) sing his praises as a spiritual warrior, but the film falls short by contextualizing his spiritual and political beliefs – where and under whom he studied (particularly noteworthy since the knowledge he possessed and acted on was not conventional or anywhere in an American textbook, and he dropped out of high school as a teenager anyway) or how he honed those beliefs. This is important because of the lazy mysticism so many non-Natives project unto Native culture, not realizing that serious scholarship and rigorous practice goes into the accruing and manifesting of the knowledge behind spiritual beliefs and practices.

We know, for instance, that the Black Panthers had a highly disciplined approach to education, a dedicated focus to reading political theory and pamphlets from across the world and its various struggling peoples. Was Trudell’s Native spirituality and the activism it spawned similarly informed by the words and work of the myriad global political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s – and beyond? He was clearly well-versed in the various treaties signed (and broken) by the U.S. government; was he also in conversation with the various movements happening around him? The film spells out that the tactics of COINTELPRO (brought into being against African American activists) were later used against Native activists and that the FBI had a thick file on him. Did he interact with non-Natives who were similarly targeted, exchanging tactics and information? We learn that his late wife Tina, for instance, made it a point to sit at the feet of elders and learn from them. Did he? The film never says.

That said, it is impossible to ignore the truth and wisdom of Trudell’s observations, or how painfully relevant they are right now. And as he links Christianity and capitalism to deliver withering critiques of both, makes note of how law enforcement agencies savagely attacked Natives in order to protect corporate interests, and how the U.S. government hijacked Native resources to give them to corporate entities for cheap, only to have them then sold to the American public for private profits, the déjà vu is head spinning and sobering.

Top image courtesy Richard Drew/Associated Press.