Charles 'Chuck' Trimble '52

Principal founder of the American Indian Press Association & former Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians


Charles “Chuck” Trimble was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the small village of Wanblee, as the youngest of 13 children. In the wake of the Great Depression, his mother had no choice but to send some of her children away to boarding school, and Charles arrived at Red Cloud—then called Holy Rosary Mission—at just four years old. Despite the immense challenges that faced him as a young man, he graduated in 1952 and went on to become a national leader in Indian affairs, advocating for public policies to strengthen tribal self-determination and improve quality of life across Indian Country. We spoke with him about his life’s work and his hopes for the next generation of Native leaders.

Q&A with Charles 'Chuck' Trimble, Class of 1952

You were born on the Pine Ridge Reservation and came to Red Cloud at only four years old. What do you remember about that time in your life?

I was born in 1935, and my father, who was wonderful man, died before I turned two years old. When he died, things were very, very difficult for my mother—my father had lost his small ranch and farm during the Depression, and she didn’t have work and was not in good health. Social workers were really pressing upon her to give me up for adoption. But instead she enrolled me in school, when I was just four years old.

Leaving home was extremely difficult for children that young—you were just homesick, to the point where you would actually get sick from the loneliness. But I think we all adapted. I got to know other little boys, and little boys will have fun whatever their situation. There was plenty of mischief and we certainly indulged it.

When it comes to the boarding school experience, I really don’t have the trauma some people say they have—I believe them, and know everything they went through. But I think I had an understanding that my mother had to do this. I knew that she loved me, and that love was very strong. And I do absolutely have appreciation for the school. They really raised me for nine months of the year!

What was your educational experience like? Were you expected to continue on to college when you finished high school?

It was a fairly standard education at that time, but we had a religious studies class called ethics that I think laid down a good foundation for a child growing up. I also learned Latin. I think I was in sixth grade when I took my first Latin grammar course, and that helped your mind work, to put words together—knowing what a word was because of its Latin background. The environment was extremely strict, but I have no regrets. I learned so much [at Red Cloud], and I give thanks to the Jesuit Fathers and scholastics for what I learned, that provided a basis for all that has come after.

And yes, all of us expected to go to college. It wasn’t a question; we just had to decide where we were going. My mother’s attitude was that I should look at college as 13th grade, you just don’t stop at high school. The expectations of my mother and my sisters were encouraging, and you really felt you were honoring family by going on to college. 

You first studied art at the University of South Dakota and, after serving in the military, studied journalism on the GI Bill at the University of Colorado, ultimately becoming editor of the Denver Indian Times. Why was increasing access to Native American news so important to you?

At the time there were quite a few Native American newspapers, but coverage of Indian affairs in the mass media was just absent. There was very little interest in and understanding of Indian Country. I got a small grant to pull together a meeting of select Indian editors that represented a good geographic and intertribal cross-section, and we met at Gonzaga University in Spokane Washington to talk about our common problems in securing news. We put together the American Indian Press Association and opened a news service that would feed first-hand, fresh news to Indian newspapers.

Of course at that time, there wasn’t much technology available, so we just had to crank out our stories by hand and mail them to newspapers all over the country. We saw it as a critical time, because the tribes increasingly were talking about self-determination, that we’d really had it with the federal government, which had proven over many years that it really couldn’t do the job for us. We had to do it.

There were signals in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that the government was starting to think that way as well. And we really thought that for the tribes to truly govern themselves, they were going to have to be knowledgeable and informed on what was happening. We knew a critical part of that had to be the Native American press. That’s what caused all of us to move forward together.

Your career took you from journalism to a leadership role in public policy and Indian affairs in Washington, DC.

Yes, after spending two years with the American Indian Press Association I was elected to serve as the Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians, and so we moved to Washington, DC. Earlier I had the very good fortune of getting to know Helen Peterson, an Oglala Lakota woman who had led NCAI through the period called termination, where the federal government was trying to disband the tribes. Helen was an outstanding woman and she really mentored me in understanding what NCAI should be doing. Her attitude was, you’re not the hero—you’re here to facilitate the leadership abilities of the tribes, and to be their eyes, ears and voice in Washington.

That time was one of the most prolific in modern Indian history for policy improvements. It really was a very rewarding—although also very stressful time. You’re testifying before Congress almost weekly, and trying to maintain consensus among the tribes. But it’s amazing to look back and say that we helped to pass the Indian Financing Act, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, the Indian Child Welfare Act, the Religious Freedom Act, self-determination, education, just one after another.

There was never a time where we felt “we did it” and could stop working—but the passage of any of those pieces of legislation was certainly reason to celebrate. And through all of it, I had to look back at Holy Rosary. All I can do is give them a lot of credit for my ability to do that work.

You’ve also spent considerable time throughout your career advocating for Native American education—talk about that work and its importance.

Again, through working with Helen Peterson in the 1960’s, I became director of American Indian Development, Incorporated or AID, Inc., which held six-week summer workshops for Native high school seniors and college freshmen. We brought them together on a campus and taught a very condensed course in Indian affairs, with the goal of developing the next generation of Indian leadership. That’s what I felt was really important. 

More recently I had the privilege of heading up the Institute for American Indian Studies at the University of South Dakota. I’m certainly not qualified as a professor without a PhD, but they invited me to run the program because of my experience in Indian affairs.

It’s been extremely rewarding, because the education I was able to get as a young man really laid the basis for what I was able to do in college and through my career. Although I don’t consider myself an educator, I deeply appreciate the value of education and what it means. I understand what Chief Red Cloud first said when he asked for the Jesuits to come out to Pine Ridge and teach his children.

Given all you’ve learned in your extraordinary life, what advice would you share with Red Cloud students today?

I would encourage them to remember that they’ve got a great education from an outstanding school. To remember that they can handle just about anything and to not give up. Most of all, I would encourage them not to forget what they’ve learned, from family and the elders, as well as what they’ve learned in school. Hang on to it, because it’s precious, and it will keep you strong and on the right road.

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last updated: August 8, 2014