Unsung heroes: Obituary delayed for Albert William ‘Al’ Trimble

Unsung heroes: Obituary delayed for Albert William ‘Al’ Trimble.

It’s been 22 years this November since the passing of Albert William “Al”
Trimble. His death in 1982, at the age of 54, was little noted in the
newspaper that, at the time, covered much of Sioux territory, the Lakota
Times. There was no obituary, merely a terse and cursory announcement of
his death.

It must be noted that in the 1975 Oglala Sioux tribal election Trimble
solidly defeated Richard “Dick” Wilson for the office of President. The
Lakota Times was a strong supporter of Wilson, and although that election
was several years before the Times began publishing, it was apparently the
cause for the posthumous snub. Yet Trimble is viewed by many Oglalas as one
of the tribe’s greatest governmental leaders. This column serves as his
obituary, long delayed.

He was born in Interior, S.D., in 1928, and was raised in Wanblee village
on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He spent most of his school years on the
reservation, but graduated from Haskell Institute in 1946. He served in the
U.S. Army in the immediate post-World War II period.

Rising from clerical ranks, Trimble held several high-level positions in
the BIA during a 20-year career. He served as superintendent of the Pine
Ridge Reservation in the months leading up to AIM’s Wounded Knee occupation
in 1973. His efforts to stop the abuses of the OST President, Dick Wilson,
particularly his alleged use of tribal program funds for personal purposes,
led Wilson to press the Bureau for his removal. The BIA conceded, and he
was transferred to that agency’s offices in Albuquerque, N.M. There, in
virtual exile, he decided to retire early from federal service and run on a
reform ticket for the presidency of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

In 1975, in a campaign marked by violent attacks on him and his family,
Trimble won the election by a decisive margin, and set out on a campaign of
healing and reform. First, measures had to be taken to change the tribal
governance from a virtual dictatorship to one responsive and accountable to
the electorate.

Under the new Indian Self-Determination Act, his first action was to secure
tribal control of the reservation police, and set up citizen review panels
to help curb abuse on their part. This action also served to disband the
hated goon squads.

He decentralized the tribal government, giving the districts more autonomy
and resources, and pushed the council into an annual round-robin schedule
of meeting in each of the districts. To further their confidence, he
secured funds to build district meeting centers throughout the reservation.
The tribal seat at Pine Ridge he saw as a colonial outpost and he sought to
move political control from Pine Ridge to the districts, and he envisioned
a new tribal capital in the geographic center of the reservation. This, he
felt, would also move the economic center inward for greater benefit to all
tribal members. The new capital would be called Piya Wiconi, meaning “New
Beginning” in the Lakota language.

But, sapped of strength by the strenuous schedule and a congenital heart
condition, he had little energy to mount his reelection campaign, and lost
his bid for a second term. However, the reforms he put in place were etched
into the hearts of the people, and to this day they are loath to surrender
them.

He lived to see the first building constructed on the high grassy hill
where he envisioned Piya Wiconi would be located. The tribal college,
Oglala Lakota College, would be headquartered in the modern structure that
crowned the prairie horizon there. That institution keeps alive his dream
of a new capital.

Although in his final months he served as executive director of the
National Congress of American Indians, the greatest honor to him personally
was the presidency of his tribe, and his greatest achievement was the
reforms he instituted in tribal government there.

At the memorial dinner ending the customary year of mourning, Suzan Harjo
summed up his life in a written tribute: “We have lost a great leader as
well as a great healer.”

Charles E. Trimble is an Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian
Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press
Association in 1970, and served as executive director of the National
Congress of American Indians from 1972 – 78. He is president of Red Willow
Institute in Omaha, Neb., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.

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