By Lisa Pemberton
American Indian activist, actor and poet John Trudell borrowed a famous quote to tackle a Titanic-size goal.
The phrase: Women and children first.
The goal: Comprehensive health care coverage for Americans.
Trudell, 62, of Los Angeles will offer a spoken-word performance at The Evergreen State College tonight as part of his tour promoting the national Give Love Give Life campaign.
"He totally blows me away every time I see him," said Brian Frisina, host of a weekly show about American Indian issues on KAOS radio, the Evergreen public radio station sponsoring the concert. "To me, he's one of the most clear and coherent people on the face of the Earth."
Trudell, a Santee Sioux, initiated the Give Love Give Life benefit tours with singer-songwriters Willie Nelson and Jackson Browne.
The concerts are part of a growing movement to educate the public about women's health issues, particularly the high rates of ovarian and gynecologic cancers.
Each year, an estimated 30,000 women die of gynecologic cancers.
"How high does the body count have to go before we call this an epidemic?" Trudell said.
"In a coherent thinking society, we would recognize there is a cancer epidemic in this country. In a clear thinking society, we would take responsibility rather than remain in denial about the seriousness of this issue," he said.
Trudell began writing poetry as a way to deal with grief and anger.
In 1979, while serving as chairman for the American Indian Movement, he burned a U.S. flag on the steps of the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., to protest U.S. government policy on American Indians. Within a matter of hours, his wife, three children and mother-in-law were killed in a suspicious fire on a Nevada reservation.
Although the Bureau of Indian Affairs ruled the fire an accident, Trudell believes it was murder.
In 1982, the Vietnam veteran began recording his poetry with traditional American Indian music. He has since recorded nearly a dozen albums.
The Olympian caught up with Trudell after a speaking engagement in Minnesota.
Here are excerpts from the interview:
Question: Tell us about your spoken word tour. What can folks expect at your performance at Evergreen?
Answer: I call them poetry talks. I read poetry and I talk about things. ... It's not so much a benefit as it is an event about awareness, and to promote the message of Give Love Give Life.
Q: How did you get involved in this cause?
A: In 2002 or 2003, I worked with a woman, Marcheline Bertrand (mother of actress Angelina Jolie), and she had ovarian cancer. We started doing these benefits for ovarian and other gynecological cancers.
After the second event, we realized that the issue is good and valid, but there are so many women that can't even access health care.
We thought it would be better to (work toward) getting women and children access to health care.
Marcheline passed in January 2007, and I just kept it going.
Q: Why should folks care about this issue?
A: If you really think about it, any culture that does not look out the for the interests of the women and children first isn't really a culture.
We need to really figure out: Are we really a culture here? Do we have a culture?
It's just the right thing to do.
Q: What are your poems about?
A: About all the nutty stuff that goes on in my head. (laughs)
My poetry is basically my interpretation of what's going on around us. ... But really, I look at it that I write lines. They end up getting used as rhymes or lyrics or whatever, but I look at them as lines. They come to me one line at a time. It's a real hunt sometimes.
Q: What do you enjoy about writing?
A: In some ways, it's a therapy. It's an outlet. I think it's safer for the world that I write poetry - that I write my lines.
Q: Is there anything you would like to add?
A: I would just like people to check out the Web sites (www.givelovegivelife.net or www.myspace.com/givelovegivelife), and if they agree, then we ask them to participate.
They can pass the information along to people they think would agree, and communicate to the candidates that they need to prioritize national health care for the women and children of America. ...
We're not asking anybody to change who they are, if they're conservative or liberal or anyplace in-between. We're looking at this as a way we can get some meaningful dialogue happening.
Lisa Pemberton writes for The Olympian. She can be reached at 360-704-6871.