Charles Trimble, Advocate for Native American Rights, Dies at 84

Charles Trimble, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who dedicated his life to advancing the causes of self-determination, sovereignty and human rights for Native Americans, died on March 2 at a hospital in Omaha. He was 84.

His daughter, Kaiti Fenz-Trimble, said he had been in failing health for some time.

Mr. Trimble, who overcame early poverty, wore many hats. He helped establish a news service for Native American newspapers. He mediated disputes between the tribes and the United States government. And he promoted economic development on tribal reservations.

He started, as well, Charles Trimble Company, a national consulting firm specializing in economic development on Indian reservations. He also founded Red Willow Institute, a nonprofit that provided technical and management assistance to Native American nonprofit organizations.

Mr. Trimble was concerned that issues of deep importance to Native Americans were going uncovered by the mainstream press. In 1969 he helped found the American Indian Press Association, a news service that covered Indian-related news in Washington and made the articles available to scores of tribal newspapers. More of an organizer than a working journalist, he brought together the tribal editors and helped them exchange ideas and decide which projects the Washington bureau should pursue. He was sometimes called “a founding father of Native American journalism.”

Mr. Trimble left the press association in 1972, when he was elected executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, which was established in 1944 to oppose the assimilation policies that the U.S. government had tried to impose on tribes. In that capacity he lobbied Congress on behalf of Native Americans, pressing broadly for tribal rights, such as protecting their status as sovereign nations and preserving indigenous cultures.

“That was a very exciting time,” his wife, Anne Trimble, said in a phone interview. “Indians felt they were not being treated fairly by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. His role was to mediate between the bureau and the American Indian Movement,” the activist grass roots organization that began in the late 1960s and in 1972 and occupied the offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“Building a consensus was his real gift,” she added. “He had a knack for bringing people together.”

Charles Ellis Trimble was born on March 12, 1935, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in Wanblee, S.D., the youngest of 11 children. His father, John Guy Trimble, a farmer, died in 1937 before Charles, known as Chuck, was 2; he was raised by his mother, Lucy (Randall) Trimble, a homemaker.

The reservation was home to some of the poorest communities in the United States, with hardscrabble conditions that were aggravated by the Depression. When Chuck’s mother fell ill, the state wanted to put him up for adoption. But she placed him instead at a local Jesuit boarding school, Holy Rosary Mission (now Red Cloud Indian School). He graduated in 1952.

He briefly attended Cameron College in Oklahoma, then transferred to the University of South Dakota, from which he graduated in 1957 with a bachelor of fine arts degree in advertising.

After serving in the Army, he moved to Spokane, Wash., where he worked for General Dynamics, the aerospace and defense systems manufacturer, as a time management and planning analyst for the Atlas missile program. The job required him to move to several different military installations around the country. He ended up in Omaha, where he met Anne Savage, whom he married in 1962. She and their daughter are his only immediate survivors.

Mr. Trimble left General Dynamics in the early 1960s, and the couple settled in Denver, where Mr. Trimble did community relations work with minorities. He also started writing a newsletter for the White Buffalo Council, an urban Indian organization in Denver, marking the start of his involvement with Indian affairs.

“He was a good writer and was always a big reader,” his wife said, and he briefly took journalism courses at the University of Colorado.

While working for the National Congress of American Indians, Mr. Trimble chaired the group’s economic development committee and served on the board of directors of the American Indian National Bank in Washington. He represented Native Americans at several United Nations gatherings, including in Denmark and Switzerland.

Mr. Trimble and his wife moved back to Omaha in 1986 to be closer to their families. He taught courses in contemporary Indian affairs at the University of Nebraska Omaha College of Continuing Studies, and over time received multiple honorary degrees. For many years he wrote a column for Indian Country Today on historical events and contemporary issues.

Mr. Trimble also became president of the Nebraska State Historical Society, which was involved in a dispute with the Pawnee tribe. For many years the society had been holding the skeletal remains of hundreds of Native Americans, and the Pawnee wanted them back to give them a proper burial.

Mr. Trimble de-escalated the tensions between the two groups, and ultimately the skeletal remains were returned to the tribe.

“He was able to bring a healing spirit to that table, which was desperately needed,” Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, told The Omaha World-Herald after his death. (She says she uses a lowercase letter for her last name as a sign of humility.)

“He knew when to press hard and knew went to compromise,” she said. “That takes a real talent.”

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