John Trudell fought on the American side in Vietnam, aboard a Navy ship that did search-and-rescue missions for fallen pilots. Yet since then, he has found himself on the opposite side of another "war," one he believes the government is waging within its own borders and on, ironically enough, the original Americans.
To an outsider, "war" may seem a strong label for the U.S. government's policies and treatment of Native Americans, but to Mr. Trudell, what else would you call the suspicious death of his wife, their three children and his mother-in-law -- some 12 hours after he burned a flag in a protest demonstration -- but casualties?
Thirteen years after the death of his family, Mr. Trudell, 46, continues to fight for American Indian rights. His venue, however, increasingly has become an artistic one, and tonight, he'll perform at Max's on Broadway.
The one-time chairman of the radical American Indian Movement (AIM), Mr. Trudell most recently appeared as an actor in the movie, "Thunderheart," and in a documentary produced by Robert Redford, "Incident at Oglala," both of which deal with the murder of two FBI agents on an Indian reservation in South Dakota. He also has channeled his considerable political and personal passions into music -- or rather, poetry that is chanted to music -- which he has recorded for a newly re-released album, "AKA Grafitti Man."
"It's too late for justice," said Mr. Trudell, who spoke to reporters recently to promote "Incident at Oglala" (which has not played in Baltimore to date). "But maybe the truth can come out."
Thin in an itchy, tense way and clad in black with silver bangles and tattoos, Mr. Trudell obviously hasn't lost all of his outrage or pain in the years since the February 1979 death of his family.
"They couldn't find all the parts," he said bluntly of the fire that killed his wife, Tina, their children and his mother-in-law and burned down their home on the Shoshone Paiute reservation in Nevada. "The fire was so intense, they couldn't find my oldest daughter."
Mr. Trudell was in Washington where he had demonstrated in front of FBI headquarters and burned a flag he said had been desecrated by the injustice and racism of the government. The FBI refused to investigate the fire and labeled it accidental, Mr. Trudell said.
"My concern was to bury my family, then see if there's another day," he said. "I have spent most of that time [since then] drifting through various realities."
After returning from Vietnam, Mr. Trudell, born in Omaha to a father who was a Santee Indian and a mother with tribal roots in Mexico, had become active in Native American issues including participation in the AIM, organized in 1968 and opposed to government policies on Indian reservations.
On the Pine Ridge, S.D., reservation, for example, there had been numerous murders, beatings and inexplicable "accidents" that AIM blames on tribal leaders acting as "puppets" for the U.S. government. It was Pine Ridge where two FBI agents were killed on June 26, 1975, after they drove onto the reservation and a gunfight ensued. An AIM member, Leonard Peltier, ultimately was convicted and jailed with two consecutive life sentences, yet his trial remains controversial today.
Mr. Trudell takes a hard-line stance: He doesn't say Mr. Peltier is guilty or innocent of the killings, saying instead that the "political repression" against Indians during those years overwhelms specific incidents.
"No matter who did the shooting, they're innocent," he said. "There was a war going on."
"AKA Grafitti Man" is Mr. Trudell chanting poems over a jangley, percussive music. He released the album in 1986 on his own label. It has been remixed and overdubbed -- with, among other additions, the vocals of two friends, Jackson Browne and Kris Kristofferson -- and released under the Rykodisc label.
Trudell at Max's
What: John Trudell and the Grafitti Man band at Max's on Broadway
Where: 735 S. Broadway
When: At 9 tonight
% Call: (410) 675-6297.