Charles Trimble: Thanking Lakota veterans for sharing their stories

Charles “Chuck” Trimble. Courtesy photo

Lakota Veterans and Spirituality
By Charles "Chuck" Trimble

I dislike people who pose as Indian spiritualists as a means to gaining personal acceptance and trust, as well as for political advantage and even financial gain. I have come to suspect many people who claim to have found spirituality, but who still hold the evils that spirituality is supposed to rid from our lives.

Thus it was when I purchased the book, The Spiritual Journey of a Brave Heart, by Basil Brave Heart.

As it is said by people who are about to expose a phony, “I knew him back when.” I knew Basil Brave Heart as a school mate – a talented high school athlete at Holy Rosary Mission boarding school back in the 1940s and 50s. He was a good guy, popular with the guys and girls, but as crazy as any of us, and I thought he was a damned fool for leaving school in his junior year to join the US Army and go off to fight in Korea.

In 1977 I was invited by him to speak to the graduating class at the school on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation where he was Principle. I was impressed by him, but “spiritualist?” No way. Not the guy I knew as Basil Hart back then.

How wrong I was. For I read his book and was drawn deeply into it. I was impressed and inspired – impressed with the excellence of his writing and inspired by the depth of his spiritual experience. His story takes the reader through his youth – personal things I didn’t know about his growing-up years, then through his experiences in the Korean War, although he doesn’t dwell on gory action or heroic courage. Then he tells of personal bouts that many of us know of what alcohol does to relieve pain and memories even as it drags us to depths of loss and despair. And finally he tells of finding Lakota spirituality that was around him all along – and in that spirituality of finding relief and peace and finding himself.

It’s not a “Hallelujah-I’m saved!” kind of book, but simply a story he felt compelled to share; and I am so glad he has shared it; for I have a new admiration for Basil, a new appreciation of his life, and new hope for myself.

There is another veteran I got to know and appreciate later – not personally, but through words of his that I read.

It was at the time of the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee village by the American Indian Movement and the weeks-long standoff between AIM and the Federal Marshals, and I was serving as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, DC. I reported to the NCAI Executive Committee my concerns that the Oglala Sioux Tribe was trapped in a quagmire where it was virtually under martial law by the Federal government and was being denigrated by the media.

I told them that I would go to Pine Ridge and see what I could do to help and support the leadership of the OST, including the tribal President, Richard “Dick” Wilson. After all, the first-line authority of NCAI is vested in the tribal governments that are members of the organization and make up its Executive Council. Thus I thought we should be on site and available to help the OST government.

When I arrived in Pine Ridge I met with my long-time friend Leo Vocu, who was also my immediate predecessor as NCAI Executive Director, and we worked together to help in any way we could. But my approach was for a conciliatory resolution to end the occupation, and that didn’t set well with certain Wilson supporters – the vigilante group that identified themselves as the Guardians of the Oglala Nation – the notorious GOON squad.

Some of the Goons I had known for many years, including former schoolmates of mine. But one of them stood out – a young veteran of the Vietnam War. He was athletically trim, crew cut and quiet. His name was Charles “Chuck” Richards, a person Leo warned me never to mess with.

Immediately I disliked him, as I tended to dislike all the Goons at that time.

Much later I read an interview Chuck Richards gave Father Don Doll SJ, in his 1994 book, Vision Quest, and it moved me mightily. Suddenly I thought I would like to meet this Chuck Richards and thank him for his sacrifices and for his inspiration. Here in part is what he had to say in his interview:
“When you take a life in war, your spirituality goes first, then your sanity. Without spirituality you kill without thought or reason. You become God. Power is the rifle and bayonet you carry, the grenades you throw. You make life and death happen. Why, if there is a God, does He allow that carnage, that destruction, the starving children? Why?

“It’s hard to come back to the straight path, but once we find our spirituality, things start mellowing out. Then we can pray.

“Since I straightened up my life, I tell people about those who made the supreme sacrifice. The vets come to me. I am not a doctor. I’m just a Nam vet like them, but they talk, lay bare what they held inside these twenty-five years. They break down and cry. I hug them and I cry because I’ve been there, too.”

In his interview, Richards never mentions that he is recipient of the Silver Star and two Bronze stars for bravery in combat, and three Purple Heart medals for wounds he received. Or that he is a member of the Lakota Red Feather Society for warrior heroism. He also founded the Oglala Lakota Vietnam Veterans Association.

These two Lakotas – Basil Brave Heart and Chuck Richards – are my kind of heroes, and people I admire as truly spiritual men. Pilamayayelo, Basil; nish-eya, Chuck. Wopila!

Charles Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1969 and served as its Executive Director to 1972 when he was elected Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians. His website is and he can be reached at

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