John Trudell once traveled all the way to Tucson, Arizona to talk to Native American students about his life. His activism. But mostly, he wanted to talk about whatever they wanted to talk about.
Diminutive, amiable, unassuming, he happily spent an entire afternoon with some of my students, before addressing the entire student body at an assembly. And for once, there was none of the usual wise cracking, wiggling and giggling in the audience. The students were rapt.
He had a helluva story to tell. Some students knew about his American Indian Movement activist days from their parents, some of whom had actually gone to the occupations at Wounded Knee and Alcatraz. Others only knew him as an "That guy in Pow Wow Highway," a film dear to many Native people, and the Val Kilmer vehicle, Thunderheart. Others had never heard of him at all.
But they heard him that day. Once he got his warrior on it was impossible not to hear him. Feel him.
He was a man with lots of reasons to be angry, most notably the mysterious death in 1979 of his pregnant wife and three children, in a fire which many still believe may have been a deliberate act of government intimidation. But he spoke with a poet's precision and the calm conviction of a man who had transcended the pain, but had not, would never, forget it.
I heard teenagers who had been openly disdainful of all that "tribal identity stuff" ask him wonderful questions. And receive patient, profound and empowering responses. He had not come to preach. Or teach. Save by example. And it worked.
After school, I took him to La Indita, a Mexican restaurant run by Native American activists with whom I thought he would feel very much at home. They didn't talk about politics. He talked about the amazing chicken mole they'd served up so proudly.
He wanted to be just another customer. But the smiles in their eyes, the slight nods of respectful recognition between the owners and their special guest were gentle acknowledgements of common struggles. A common history. They didn't need to talk about it. They'd been there.
Upon learning of his death on December 8th, Indian Country Today reported that in answer to all the get well wishes received over the past few weeks, Trudell had said:
"I appreciate all of your expressions of concern and I appreciate all of your expressions of love. It has been like a fire to my heart. Thank you all for that fire. But please don't worry about me . . ."
"I don't want to tell people how to remember me. I want people to remember me as they remember me."
I remember the fire in the eyes of those children he touched so deeply. I hope they will pause sometime this week, to remember the man who lit that flame.
I do. I always will.
Photo credit: Public domain