Political Matters: Defends/Stands Up for People


Defends/Stands Up for People

In my June column for The Circle, I

wrote about Ken Tilsen, the dean of civil rights lawyers in Minnesota

and a committed advocate for American Indians, who was in very poor

health. Ken rallied during the summer, but then went to the Spirit

World on Sept. 1.

At his funeral, Sept. 4, at Temple of

Aaron Cemetery in Roseville, a large group of family members and

friends gathered for songs, prayers and eulogies.

The ceremony was a mix of Jewish and

Lakota rituals. Ken was from a Jewish family and, as things worked

out, he had grandchildren from the rez.

His older brother, Bob, mentioned that

Ken’s Hebrew name was Akiva, after the ancient rabbi who resisted

the Roman conquerors in the Holy Land two millennia ago. And grandson

Nick Tilsen, who lives in Porcupine, on the Pine Ridge reservation,

chanted a prayer in Lakota, followed by sharp blasts on an eagle


Before the prayer, Nick said that he

wondered if his grandfather, who had done so much on behalf of

Indians over the years, had ever been given an Indian name. He said

that he loaded his pipe, smoked and prayed, and came up with a name:

Oyate Nawicakicijin – Defends/Stands Up for People.

“Today I am burying not just my

grandfather,” Nick Tilsen said, in his extemporaneous eulogy from

the heart. “He was my hero.”

Ken, who was born in New Leipzig,

North Dakota, in 1927, was raised in St. Paul’s Selby-Dale

neighborhood. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and

later graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School.

His willingness to confront

illegitimate government authority had its roots in an incident before

a congressional investigating committee nearly 50 years ago. Ken had

served as president of the Marxist Socialist Club at the U of M, from

1948 to 1950. Years later, he was called to testify before the House

Committee on un-American Activities in 1964. He refused to answer any

questions about the group’s activities during his student days.

Throughout his life, Ken would come to the defense of the underdog

and stand up against the bullying of government officials.

“He really believed that lawyers had

a choice to do the right thing and not just defend anybody or

prosecute anybody,” his daughter, Judith Tilsen, a Ramsey County

district court judge, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “He cared

deeply about fairness and justice … it wasn’t just his work, it

was his passion.”

In the 1960s, Ken became widely known

for defending those resisting the military draft for the Vietnam War.

He also was active in the Civil Rights movement. Rosemary Massey (née

Freeman), an African American activist from Greenwood, Mississippi,

came to stay with the Tilsen family and was taken in like a daughter.

Regarding the Vietnam War era draft, Tilsen wrote a book, called

Judging the Judges, which examined the behavior of four federal court

judges who handled the case of draft resisters.

Perhaps Tilsen’s greatest prominence

came with his defense of American Indian Movement (AIM) activists

following the 71-day U.S. government siege of Wounded Knee, on the

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in 1973. Tilsen was part of the legal

team, along with the late William Kunstler and others, that defended

AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means. The AIM leadership trial

dragged on for nine months in St. Paul federal court. Judge Fred

Nichol finally threw out the case, in the face of pervasive illegal

behavior by the FBI and federal prosecutors.

Larry Leventhal served as the treaty

rights expert on the legal team. “In addition to doing the work

day-to-day at trial, [Tilsen] was managing virtually all of the cases

behind the scenes and working with lawyers,” Leventhal told me.

“He was literally involved in dozens

of cases … Many of the attorneys [around the Midwest] were not

familiar with the circumstances [during the Wounded Knee siege], they

were volunteers, or had not really dealt with Indian people, and Ken

would work over those things with many people.”

Besides the Banks-Means leadership

trial, there were around 300 other federal prosecutions in the

aftermath of the Wounded Knee takeover, according to Leventhal.

I was privileged to know Ken Tilsen

for about 50 years. He was a positive influence in my life, and his

steadfast commitment to social justice will continue to inspire those

he mentored and helped along the way. This is a sad time for Ken’s

longtime companion, Connie Goldman, and for his children,

grandchildren, great-grandchildren, siblings and close friends. But

he lived an extraordinary life and helped many people. May his memory

always be a blessing.