Against all odds, Red Thunder gives back

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PORTLAND, Ore. - She's got the name. And Red Thunder's got 'the gumption.

"I wasn't really raised, I was dragged up. My stepfather told me I'd never
be anything and that I was the scum of the earth," said mother, wife and
auto mechanic Marcella Red Thunder. "But I made a choice to finally quit
believing all the things I was told when I was little, and it helped me get
to where I am today."

Where Red Thunder, enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux tribe, is
today is on Portland's nine-member Citizen Review Committee, which hears
complaints against the police and advises the Independent Police Review
Board.

She serves alongside folks with resumes listing such job titles as
consulting firm owner, director of the Portland Port's U.S. Customs
Service, civil rights attorney and grant evaluator for the Robert Wood
Johnson Foundation - illustrious backgrounds, to be sure, but Red Thunder
finally has the support she needs.

"'Who are all these people, and what am I doing here?' I say to myself,"
Red Thunder said. "But my mother-in-law assures me that I'm right where I
need to be."

Red Thunder was nominated to serve a two-year term because she took an
interest in her neighborhood. While that might seem fairly straightforward,
the road she traveled to end up in her neighborhood was challenging.

"All my life, we've never owned a house. I'm one of nine children, and we'd
moved 17 times by the time I was 15. Renting was just what you did," said
Red Thunder. "But my husband promised me we'd get a home of our own and
that's how it turned out."

It wasn't easy, and she said she was terrified, but Red Thunder and Jason
White, her husband of nine years, finally bought a home in one of
Portland's marginal neighborhoods four years ago when their daughter,
Josette Rubyjane Red Thunder, was age 2. "Those were busy times. I was just
finishing my associate degree in Automotive Technology at Clackamas
Community College."

The automotive training was another dream come true for Red Thunder. "Here
I was, 34 years old with 14 years of deep psychotherapy behind me that had
helped me change unhealthy behavior patterns and get me out from under
drinking and drugging. I was working at UPS, but I knew I wanted something
different.

"Granted, the money was good, but I looked into my heart and came up with
the idea that I loved to work on cars," Red Thunder said. "As a teen I used
to hand my brother's friends their tools and people would say, 'You're such
a pretty girl, why do you want to do things like that?'

"But even in my baby book at age 2, my mom wrote: 'Marcella likes to take
her brothers' cars apart more than play with her dolls,'" she laughed. "So
I went for it, and even though after I graduated I had a lot of doubts over
whether I could actually make it, today I work at Harold's Auto Service."

Auto mechanic, mother, wife, homeowner. All that, and Red Thunder still
found time to attend the neighborhood meetings that eventually led to her
nomination. "I didn't like a lot of things that were going on in our
neighborhood - crime, shootings - so my mother-in-law steered me in the
direction of the community forums. The only thing was that just a few
people would show up and nothing ever came out of the meetings."

So Red Thunder visited another, more active group nearby, catching the
attention of Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams when she stood and
delivered her concerns. In the aftermath, Adams not only visited Red
Thunder's neighborhood to see first-hand of what she spoke, he recommended
her for a seat on the Citizen Review Committee.

It seems nothing can stop Red Thunder now that she's begun to. heal from a
lifetime of hurt. She's also a board member of the Portland's Native
Montessori School, which her daughter attends, and she hopes to get more
involved in the town's Native American Youth Association, which her natural
father helped found.

"I go home all the time to see my relatives on the Fort Peck Reservation
where my aunt and uncle, George and Helen Ricker, are huge supports for me.
I went back to live with them in my teens when suicide was an option, and
they have kept me grounded," Red Thunder said.

Grounded is what Red Thunder seems to be today: grounded enough to give
back to her community even though it's an urban one filled with
non-Indians. In a perfect world, she would be at home with her tribe, safe
within tradition and family networks. But since that's not what life had in
store, she rechanneled her spirit and now gives back to the community in
which she finds herself. Although it's early in the game, it appears that
Portland will be a better place for it.