|Written by by Mordecai Specktor,
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I had some specific ideas about the contents for this monthly column; but as I sit down to write, I am mulling over the news that Ken Tilsen, a longtime friend and one of the great champions of American Indians is seriously ill. Ken was a mainstay of the legal defense work after the 1973 U.S. government siege at Wounded Knee. He was a member of the legal team that defended Dennis Banks and Russell Means, over the course of a lengthy federal court trial in St. Paul, which resulted in the criminal charges being thrown out because of pervasive misconduct by federal officials.
In 1963, my family moved from St. Paul to Mendota Heights, and we had the good fortune to live one street over from the Tilsen family. Their household was always a lively place, especially for a teenager interested in the political currents of the times. Ken and his late wife, Rachel, opened their home to activists in the Civil Rights movement from Greenwood, Mississippi, a place far removed from the idyllic St. Paul suburb. As the dean of civil rights lawyers in Minnesota, in the 1960s, Ken defended Vietnam War draft resisters and pot smokers – whose cases clogged the courts at that time. Inspired by the Tilsens, I got involved in the Civil Rights movement, and with anti-war and draft resistance groups. Although I didn’t go out to Rapid City after Wounded Knee, I later became involved with the Black Hills Alliance, and have been writing about American Indian issues for the past 35 years.
It’s sad to think that Ken Tilsen is about to enter the World to Come. He is a person of great warmth and intellectual depth who worked to make this a more humane world. I felt great affection for Ken in recent years, when he was a legal consultant to the team of lawyers defending the “RNC 8,” the young activists charged with a number of felonies in the aftermath of the 2008 Republican National Convention. My son, Max, who was 19 at the time, was one of the defendants in the case that was prosecuted by the Ramsey County attorney for more than two years. Ken and Max’s lawyer, Larry Leventhal (who was the treaty law expert in the 1974 Banks-Means trial) provided great comfort to some worried parents. Finally, in the fall of 2010, charges were dropped completely against several defendants, one took a plea deal with some jail time, and four of the RNC 8 pleaded guilty to reduced charges and got fines and probation.
I know that many folks in the Indian community are sending prayers to Ken and his family. I wish all the best for Ken and
Another ally of the contemporary Indian rights movement, Dick Bancroft, has published a collection of his photographs, We Are Still Here: A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement (Borealis Books). The attractive, large-format volume includes informative text by Laura Waterman Wittstock. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum wrote the foreword.
Bancroft began photographing American Indians in 1971, and became one of the key visual documentarians of the American Indian Movement (AIM), which began as a street patrol against police brutality in Minneapolis and gained global press attention and popularity in the 1970s.
Along with the work of Kevin McKiernan, Roger Woo and Keri Pickett, Bancroft’s photos are included in an exhibit curated by the American Indian Movement Interpretive Center and titled “I’m Not Your Indian Anymore” at All My Relations Gallery, 1414 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis. And some of Bancroft’s photos from We Are Still Here are on exhibit at Mill City Museum, 704 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis, through Sept. 1.
I was with Dick when he took the photos of AIM prisoner of war Leonard Peltier, in 1981, at the federal prison in Marion, Illinois, and in 1985, at the Springfield, Missouri, lock-up. Perhaps there will be a follow-up volume, which could include photos of David Sohappy, who Dick and I visited at the Sandstone federal prison.
I was privileged to meet Sohappy on several occasions, beginning in 1983, after he was convicted in the Salmonscam federal sting operation. The Yakima spiritual leader, who successfully litigated treaty fishing rights claims on the Columbia River, became a cause celebre in the Pacific Northwest, after he was sentenced to five years in prison for illegal fishing. Sohappy told me that his fellow inmates were incredulous when he told them that he was in prison “for fishing.”
You should check out We Are Still Here exhibit and the book.