John Trudell doesn't mince his words when it comes to addressing the state of American Indian affairs.
"When I look at the state of Native America, our people, we're surrounded by chaos," Trudell told listeners Thursday night at Haskell Indian Nations University.
Trudell, a poet, musician and one-time prominent activist for the American Indian Movement in the 1970s, spoke in Lawrence as a prelude to screening his documentary and addressing the Haskell Commencement Pow Wow tonight.
On the surface, Trudell's comments Thursday showed a grim outlook.
"The state of Native America today is just as precarious a situation now as it was in the 1700s and 1600s," he said.
Yet, positive undertones were clear in his message that Indians can improve their situation - often characterized by poverty and short life spans - in part by embracing and recognizing Indian spirituality.
"We need to understand who we are," he implored the crowd of about 150. "Recognize ourselves for who we are."
The halcyon days of the American Indian Movement were in the late 1970s, but Trudell said the government had managed to largely crush AIM by the 1980s, which was about the time he left the organization.
"When I look back at the AIM days, it was a great time," he said. "... But we couldn't get beyond ourselves in some ways."
More recently, Trudell has focused on a musical and film career, which includes being the subject of a documentary called "Trudell."
He will screen the film at 2 p.m. today at Haskell Auditorium.
One student asked him what could be done by younger Indians who live in a system the student described as "glorified welfare."
"It's not so much glorified welfare," Trudell said. "It's chump change for what they owe us."
Terri Dyer, a member of the Kickapoo tribe, said she found Trudell's words inspiring, given that she believes that American Indians continue to face discrimination and difficulties, even locally.
"We're still fighting the fight," she said, "here in Lawrence, Kansas."