Charles E. Trimble is president of Red Willow Institute, a nonprofit corporation he founded to provide technical and management assistance to Native American nonprofit organizations. Raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Trimble is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. In 1972, he was elected executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. Trimble served nine years on the board of the Nebraska State Historical Society. Trimble lives in Omaha with his wife, Anne (née Savage).
The death of Frank D. LaMere on June 15, 2019, was reported across Nebraska and beyond — throughout Native America. He was admired by most people who knew him, and respected even by those whose bigotry he had vanquished.
I first met Frank when we served together on the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs in the late 1980s. I admired him and was always inspired by his spirit and his determination.
Several years ago, I had the honor of introducing Frank, who was being recognized by the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and as I mentally prepared my brief remarks, a strong comparison of his persona came to mind in the form of the great Oglala chief Red Cloud, as described by Nebraska poet John Neihardt in his epic poem “A Cycle of the West.” This was what he wrote: “… here was one who never gave despair a moral mien, nor schooled a righteous hate to live at peace with evil.”
That phrase described Frank LaMere perfectly; for he could never pass up the evil of human suffering that was due to bigotry, or injustice that springs from bigotry. Especially when it came to Native Americans, he had to do something about it.
Let me give you an example:
I have driven many times from Omaha up to my homeland — the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwest South Dakota, to attend meetings or to visit relatives.
On most of those trips, I crossed into South Dakota at the small town of Whiteclay, Nebraska, situated on the state line adjacent to the reservation. In the few minutes it would take to drive through the town, I would see what I always dreaded — pathetic wasted humanity, Lakota men and women, staggering or passed-out drunk.
This troubled me greatly, but I must admit that I never did anything about it. I thought that there was nothing I could do but give money. But, in giving money to those suffering Oglalas, I may as well be giving it to the death merchants selling the beer and cheap wine to those victims; because that is where it would go — immediately.
But not so with Frank LaMere — he could not and would not abide that terrible exploitation, which he saw as a kind of slavery.
His leadership in the shutdown of Whiteclay alcohol sales was the most heralded victory for which he is being remembered in the reports of his death. But he is known throughout much of Native America for his untiring work over four decades on behalf of individuals, villages and tribes.
He was a leader, one who was always in the front row of marches to demonstrate against abhorrent conditions that moved the people to take such steps — much like Frank’s personal friend, Jesse Jackson. And as with Jesse Jackson, LaMere was seen by some as only wanting glory and face time on TV and in other media.
But he saw his fame (or notoriety, as some would have it) as a way of focusing attention on the call for justice that those poor and minority people were rightfully demanding. He would give them voice.
That was Frank LaMere as I remember him, and as he will be remembered in modern Indian history.
I have heard it said that the glow of the council fire casts longer shadows than the blazing fires of hatred, anger and war. Frank LaMere’s shadow extended far and touched many people.