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News ::
No Surrender: John Trudell Speaks (english)
23 Oct 2002
John Trudell, outspoken activist and poet, granted the Atlanta IMC a one-on-one interview. To listen or read the full interview, visit the Atlanta IMC site at
October 16, 2002

John Trudell, a Native American activist, poet, and spoken word artist was born and raised on the Santee Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1963-1967 and then became active in the Native American struggle. He participated in the occupation of Alcatraz Island and became a spokesperson for Indians of All Tribes. After the Indians of All Tribes occupation ended, he became active in the American Indian Movement (AIM) and became chairman in 1973. He was chairman of AIM until 1979 when his life drastically changed; twelve hours after burning an American flag on the steps of the FBI in Washington D.C. his house in Nevada was burned down, killing his mother-in-law, wife, and three children. After this tragic event he shifted his focus from political activism to spoken word. Currently he is on tour to promote his new c.d. as well as to show his support for public, community, and college radio stations.

The Atlanta IMC was granted a private interview with John Trudell. Trudell spoke openly about the tragic experiences that drove him away from political activism. Activism to him is participating in a purposeful, productive way to bring about a more coherent world to live in. When asked what inspired him to continue, he answered that he is not inspired but rather obligated to continue, that it “would be a betrayal to them. Maybe it would be better in reality if I did it for other reasons. But…I mean…this is why they were killed. They were killed for what Tina wanted and what I wanted and what we were doing, so to let them just kill me that way, no, that to me would have been the betrayal. That was the only reason I had for continuing to live. It wasn’t inspiration, it was desperation.” His journey from political activism to music and poetry was driven by the tragic death of this family. As a vehicle for therapy he began to write. “One day these lines came into my head and something told me to write them down. Actually the thought was…the lines came, and the thought that came with it was, ‘write these lines down and don’t stop’. So that’s what I did. Because to me, my wife Tina, she was the poet, not me.” He blames the death of his family on the American government – “the government waged a war against us. A war to break…to break everything: from our spirit to our momentum to our organization – just to break it.”

When asked how he feels about terrorism as a new concept post September 11th, Trudell responded, “Terrorism arrived on the Western Hemisphere with Columbus, and it’s been manifesting itself here ever since.” He defined terrorism as violence to achieve a political objective, a tactic that was used by the Europeans against the Native Americans 500 years ago. “From psychological terrorism to just hunting you down and murdering you and stealing your land. They did this to us. Placing terrorism in that context, I think that Western civilization is a terrorist civilization.” The terrorism isn’t perpetrated by foreign powers, but is instead present in the U.S. today, in the forms of racism, sexism, and classism. Trudell equates the burka in Afghanistan to the thong in America, explaining that it’s just a different standard about how we expect women to look and behave. Trudell expanded his view of terrorism to include the social inequities caused by capitalist mentality. “When you have children to raise, or you know you may be getting older and you know you can’t afford medicine. To me – that’s about terrorism because it’s creating all these fears in the general populace. And I think that the subtleties in the ways these fears spread, in the long run, it has just as much of a psychological terrorist impact as when they knocked down those buildings. The difference is when they knocked down those buildings, everyone saw it at once.”

“George Bush is an idiot: he didn’t think all this stuff up and everybody knows it. But yet we pretend that he’s the problem. But he’s not the problem. He’s the Peter Jennings. He’s the anchorman for the real problem.” Discussing current trends in politics, he commented on the newly passed Patriot Act. “They designed the patriot act to perpetuate terrorism, and that’s exactly what it’s about.” He shared his personal theory with us, explaining how the laws being put into place now will prevent the “American people from rebelling” in the future. Laws such as the Patriot Act will make disagreeing with the American government, heads of corporations, and international trade groups a terrorist act.

Due to globalization and technology, he expressed concern about the diminishing importance of the American consumer in the global market. Corporations have come to the realization that Americans are “too fucking expensive. They want to make a living wage, they want health care, they want childcare, they want days off to have babies, fuck – they want everything. That’s just too expensive.” Corporations don’t need to provide these standards for the American people, because new global consumers will pick up the slack.

While fighting for social change it is difficult to not partake in the system. Even those who oppose the system inadvertently cooperate with the system. Trudell gave the example of activist being assaulted by riot police who in turn profit by earning overtime. However, when activists choose to use non-violent civil disobedience they generally cooperate with the system by applying for permits for protests. Although Trudell expressed frustration with this situation he commented that activists must continue with the struggle.

He ended the interview with inspirational advice “no surrender! No surrender, no give up. In anything that gets in front of us, we have the ability to deal with any situation placed in front of us... Anything that ever happens to us is there to make us stronger. If we understand that, our strength will get stronger.”

Later that evening, Trudell spoke at Emory University to a crowd of about 70 people, from the Emory and Atlanta communities. The Emory Center for Ethics brought Trudell as part of a series titled "Rethinking Just War". Chance Hunter, from the Emory Center of Ethics, commented that Amy Ray, Emory Alumni and Indigo Girl, suggested Trudell as a part of the series. Hunter said, "We're trying to present an extended discussion on what makes up a just war and we're trying to get as many diverse voices as we can. A native perspective provides a unique voice that is usually not heard in academia". Amy Ray gave a tearful introduction – Trudell is on Ray's record label, Daemon Records. While he read his poems, all eyes remained fixated on this stately and charismatic speaker. The talk flowed seamlessly between his political and philosophical thoughts and his poetry. He did not pause for applause after each breathtaking poem, but instead continued with his previous discussion. Emily Cohen, an undergraduate at the university, is a longtime fan of Trudell and commented, "his vision is so deep -- everything he says is so true. It comes from such a point of clarity. It doesn’t feel like he's speaking rhetoric".

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