Remembering Wounded Knee trials

Marlon Brando, in town for the Wounded Knee trials, walks down P Street.

Journal Star file photo

He came here to remember.

On a cloudy fall night last week, Beaumont Bordeaux climbed the steps up Centennial Mall, lit a candle and listened to Native drum music and singing. As he listened, the music stirred memories in the 57-year-old Lincoln man’s mind.

* * *

It’s summer 1974, and the 19-year-old Rosebud Sioux man is underneath the rickety barracks, crawling in the dirt. He patches a broken pipe, only to see water spout out a few feet down the line.

Inside, children are laughing and yelling and running. Parents are preparing food, and a team of lawyers is preparing a defense for the more than 100 Native defendants about to stand trial on charges stemming from the 71-day takeover of Wounded Knee, S.D., a year earlier.

* * *

Feb. 27, 1973, the day of the awakening. The day nearly 200 Native activists took over the village of Wounded Knee. The day the eyes of the nation became fixed on a little-known place in a dusty corner of South Dakota.

A senior in high school then, Beaumont Bordeaux heard about the takeover the same day he sprained his ankle playing basketball. On his way to the hospital, he listened to radio reports of armed militants holding hostages and demanding action against tribal leaders they called corrupt. Not long after, Bordeaux moved to Lincoln to work for his uncle’s plumbing business.

Then the American Indian Movement came to town. And the young man who had avoided being seen as sympathetic to the movement decided it was time to stand up.

“It was a big time for us as Indian people,” Bordeaux said. “Our culture had really been revitalized.”

Among those AIM leaders who inspired Bordeaux and so many other young Natives to take pride in their culture was Russell Means. His death last week from cancer sparked memories for many of those who took part in the Wounded Knee trials in Lincoln from July 1974 to January 1975.

“He was always proud to be an Indian and brought that to the people,” Bordeaux said.

* * *

From his office overlooking downtown Lincoln, Senior U.S. District Judge Warren Urbom recently shared his memories of the year he spent overseeing more than 100 cases against Native activists who had taken over Wounded Knee.

At 86, the still-practicing judge can’t conjure the memories as easily as he once could, and he often refers those who ask questions to his recently released autobiography, “Called to Justice: The Life of a Federal Trial Judge.”

But he remembers the important details just fine. Like being asked by the chief judge of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to help adjudicate some of the dozens of cases resulting from the Wounded Knee takeover. He agreed, and after overseeing trials in Sioux Falls, S.D., for three months, he dragged the rest of the cases with him to Lincoln so he could be near his family.

“It was for my convenience,” Urbom said.

For the next seven months, starting in July 1974, he oversaw trials here. By nearly all accounts, Urbom was fair and willing to compromise with the activists, a trait that seemed absent from other courts handling cases involving Native defendants at the time.

Indeed, an altercation at a Custer, S.D., courthouse in which several people were hospitalized on April 30, 1974, caused fear among some in Lincoln over what the activists and their supporters might do here. Those who were worried included U.S. marshals charged with providing security for the Lincoln courthouse.

When several Natives refused to stand when Urbom entered the courtroom, he decided to let them stay seated.

“The marshals were irritated by that,” he said.

They feared the Natives would start acting out in other ways unless the judge set clear boundaries, Urbom said. His decision, however, earned him respect among the Natives.

“By the end of three months, they were standing,” he said.

Another action that earned Urbom the respect of many Native people was his decision to hold a hearing on the potential impact of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty on the cases against the AIM defendants.

“They argued that American federal courts had no jurisdiction to be trying these cases,” he said.

Urbom ultimately ruled against the Native defendants, citing U.S. Supreme Court law that showed tribes were no longer fully independent societies. But even Means commended the judge’s fairness: “We couldn’t have received a fairer trial anywhere else in the country,” he told the Lincoln Journal in January 1975.

* * *

When the AIM defendants and their supporters arrived in Lincoln in May 1974, Lincoln community leaders opened their arms, offering them food, housing and transportation.

And a Lincoln housewife -- who “never did much cooking or cleaning anyway” -- found her calling.

A 33-year-old mother back then, Beatty Brasch decided someone needed to start organizing people to provide meals, housing and rides for the defendants and their supporters. She founded a nonprofit group, the Lincoln Committee of Concerned Citizens, whose sole mission would be to meet the needs of the Natives coming to Lincoln for the trials.

“I knew they wouldn’t have any place to stay,” she said. “They wouldn’t have any food. That was my concern.”

While the mayor and the committee initially considered using the empty Willard School building in West Lincoln for housing, neighbors and other city leaders opposed the plan. Nearly 125 West Lincoln residents protested and circulated a petition that gained more than 200 signatures.

Then, local contractor Bud Irons offered to let the city use an abandoned barracks he recently had purchased at the Lincoln Air Force Base in Arnold Heights. That plan drew neighborhood opposition as well, including at a City Council meeting at which then-Mayor Sam Schwartzkopf attacked opponents, saying he didn’t realize “we had bigots in the city of Lincoln.”

Eventually, the city approved the plan, and Brasch began gathering the food and transportation she knew the impoverished families who would be living there would need.

“We had food organized for every day and every night to take out to them,” she said.

Brasch and her husband, John, hosted a fundraiser at their home to help cover the costs, a party that drew AIM leaders like Means, Dennis Banks and John Trudell and actor Marlon Brando.

“That was fun,” she said. “It was kind of wild.”

Brasch -- who today is the founder and executive director of the Center for People in Need -- said helping the people who lived in the barracks started her on the path of helping those in need.

“I had never done anything like that,” she said.

She said the Native people who lived at the barracks caused no problems for Arnold Heights residents, although a 20-year-old Native man committed suicide in the barracks. Police found John S. Moore with a deep stab wound to his neck and cheek.

While his parents and others considered the man’s death suspicious, the Lancaster County attorney ruled his death a suicide.

By the time the Natives left the barracks in late February, the Committee of Concerned Citizens had spent more than $8,000 on food, utilities and transportation. The committee received another $5,000 in in-kind contributions, such as free plumbing from Bordeaux’s uncle.

But not all of those living in the barracks left Lincoln after city officials closed the temporary housing.

Loretta McGeisey, a 57-year-old Rosebud Sioux woman, said several people who came to attend the trials stayed for years afterward.

“They came, and they liked it, and they ended up staying, some of them,” she said.

* * *

By the time Urbom issued his last ruling in Lincoln's Wounded Knee trials, he had found six of the defendants guilty, although an appellate court later overturned four of those convictions. He sentenced the remaining two to probation.

The government lacked enough evidence to convict the large majority of the defendants involved in the uprising that left two tribal members dead and a federal agent seriously wounded, he said.

He’s kept in touch with a former spokesman for the AIM defense committee, as well as attorneys for both the defendants and the government and said he learned a lot about Native people from overseeing the Wounded Knee trials.

“They have been treated badly by the United States,” he said. “I enjoyed being around them. We got along well.”

In August 2011, Urbom joined U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito in laying sweetgrass and sage at the Wounded Knee burial site near the site of the 1973 standoff as part of a judicial conference.

"That was a meaningful event," he said.

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 402-473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com.

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I'm a Journal Star night editor and father of five.

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