Levi Rickert, editor-in-chief in Native Currents. Discussion »
SIOUX FALLS, SOUTH DAKOTA Defense attorney Ken Tilsen is not used to playing the role of spectator. In his legendary legal career that includes defending Dennis Banks and Russell Means during their trial, he was at the center of action. Since he was not asked to be on the panel at the "Wounded Knee 1973: Forty Years Later" conference at Augustana College in Sioux Falls this weekend, he will choose to stay home.
Wounded Knee Legal Defense and Offense Committee
However, Tilsen feels snubbed by the planning committee that organized the conference.
“I think it is absurd that they put together a panel with no one from the defense team to present our side of history,”
Tilsen, 84, told the Native News Network from his home on Wednesday evening.
Ken Tilsen served as chief legal coordinator for the Wounded Knee Legal Defense and Offense Committee and attorney for Dennis Banks and Russell Means during their trial in St. Paul, Minnesota. Banks and Means were charged with 10 federal offenses. After a long nine month trial, the trial resulted in a mistrial.
Tilsen is disturbed that former FBI agent Joseph H. Trimbach will be a panelist.
“Trimbech is in the process of trying to change history,”
“Trimbach has a book out that defends the FBI's actions. The judge in the trial declared a mistrial because there were so many altered by the FBI and presented at the trial.”
“Trimbach lied about a wire tap he authorized. Once evidence was produced from Washington that he signed the authorized wire tap that was notarized, he blamed his secretary, who he claimed had full rights to sign his name.”
Trimbach and his son, John M. Trimbach, wrote a revisionist book called "American Indian Mafia" that is full of disparaging comments about the American Indian Movement'â€™s leadership.
Tilsen was told he could come when he voiced his dismay to the Executive Director Harry Thompson of the Center for Western Studies. He declined, but submitted the letter below:
Letter to Harry Thompson
Center for Western Studies
April 22, 2012
Harry F. Thompson, Executive Director
2001 South Summit Avenue
Sioux Falls, South Dakota 57197
Dear Mr. Thompson,
The program for your forty-fourth annual conference has been brought to my attention. As an attorney active in the defense of the Lakota and other Indian people who entered Wounded Knee in 1973, I am very interested in the subject of the conference. I regret that I am unable to attend.
You have indeed brought together a distinguished group of scholars. Interpretations of Wounded Knee 1890 and 1973 should help all understand the history of violence against Native people by the United States Government.
But I do feel that the panel entitled "Investigations and Prosecutions Arising out of the 1973 Wounded Knee Occupation" is unlikely to produce an accurate picture of the subject.
It is particularly unfortunate that no person representing the defendants in those cases was invited to the panel as the conference takes place at a time when a substantial effort is being made to change the history of the events.
I would point out that many attorneys gave up their practice for long periods of time in order to participate in that defense. In addition, a constant stream of leading trial attorneys from the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys and the National Lawyers Guild volunteered to try cases in the federal courts in South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska. For comments on those attorneys I direct your attention to the recent writings of Judge Warren Urbom of Nebraska who handled 150 indictments arising out of Wounded Knee. Comments by this distinguished jurist may be found in the January 11, 2012 issue of the Lincoln, Nebraska Journal Star. His autobiography is being published by the University of Nebraska Press and should be available soon.
If I would have had an opportunity to appear and participate, among other things, I would have made the following comments and asked the following questions.
How is it that almost every story about Wounded Knee recites that 1200 persons were arrested but the results of the arrests in terms of convictions and prison terms is never put forward? A free and open exchange, as promised by the pre-conference remarks, would reveal that there were 6 persons given prison terms and 6 to 8 given probation with no obligations.
Thus, the facts are: Of the 1200 people arrested at Wounded Knee, 99.89% were not found guilty of any offense and only 0.05% were found guilty of an offense serious enough to justify a sentence that required incarceration.
Will the conference be made aware of the documented misconduct of the FBI and the prosecution found to have taken place during the Trial of Dennis Banks and Russell Means in St. Paul?
The trial in St. Paul was based on a multiple count indictment and lasted about 9 months. Federal Judge Nichols of Sioux Falls was the trial Judge. It was in the hands of the jury when one of the jurors became seriously ill and had to be excused. The defendants agreed to an 11 person jury. The prosecution did not. All were aware that the jury had already found the defendants not guilty of at least one count of the indictment. The prosecution wanted a retrial. At that point the defendants moved for a not guilty verdict based on misconduct by the prosecutors and the FBI.
The court agreed and dismissed the case based on a long list of findings of improper conduct. Included in the list were repeated instances when the prosecution presented documents that had been altered from the original, presenting a government witness to testify he was present during events at Wounded Knee when he was unquestionably not present, permitting a witness in their custody to engage in grievous misconduct and protecting him from prosecution.
The Government appealed the decision to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. The 8th Circuit agreed that the conduct of the prosecution was indeed serious misconduct and affirmed the decision of the trial court.
One might ask:
Should we permit the United States Government to once again succeed in changing history in order to conceal ugly facts?
Thank you for taking the time to read my letter. I'm sure you understand that the forgoing is only a small part of the concerns I would raise if I had been given an opportunity to participate in the conference. I trust that the participants will be given an opportunity to respond to my comments and questions.
Kenneth E. Tilsen
posted April 26, 2012 8:50 am edt