Political Matters: Defends/Stands Up for People
Monday, October 07 2013
Written by Mordecai Spektor,
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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 whistle.

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.

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