PINE RIDGE, S.D. – The first woman ever elected to the top leadership position of the Oglala Sioux Tribe found her two-year term shortened by what she contends was an illegal impeachment proceeding by the tribal council.
Former Oglala Sioux Tribal President Cecelia Fire Thunder worked through the pressure of three impeachment attempts, the third of which was successful. She says that she was removed from office for standing up for her principles.
Fire Thunder was impeached because she proposed a women’s health clinic for the Pine Ridge Reservation. The clinic idea came about when she acted in opposition to the statewide abortion ban, the most stringent in the nation, which became law earlier this year and does not include exemptions for incest, rape or the health of the mother.
Earlier attempts to remove her centered on a loan she negotiated with a sister tribe, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota Community. The $38 million low-interest loan helped to pay an immediate debt and construct a new hotel and casino. She was criticized for mortgaging land and thereby putting the tribe into more debt; also, some people speculated that part of the $38 million went into many of the tribal officials’ pockets – none of which was accurate, Fire Thunder has contended.
A short-term debt was paid, and the new casino/hotel complex will be completed in early 2007.
Fire Thunder, under fire for most of her time in office, points out her many accomplishments in office, which was shortened by five months. A loan with the federal Farmers Home Administration was renegotiated in Congress to reduce the principal, which left an additional $500,000 a year for the tribe to pay off other debt. A complete reconciliation of tribal finances was ordered and fiscal accountability was attempted.
The OST Head Start program was in jeopardy of closure, and under Fire Thunder’s administration the program was transferred to the Oglala Lakota College for administration. The program is now running successfully.
She blames the tribal council for her problems while in office and the fact that there is no separation of powers on Pine Ridge. During Fire Thunder’s impeachment hearing, the council violated numerous tribal constitutional requirements and federal law by not providing proper due process.
On appeal, she was returned to office by the chief tribal judge, only to be removed again a few hours later when the judge rescinded her first order. Chief Judge Lisa Adams admitted to being pressured by the tribal council to change her order that returned Fire Thunder to office.
“We know that goes on; it is a common practice to influence a judge,” Fire Thunder said.
Fire Thunder said she would fight her removal from office in tribal court; however, at the urging of other tribal leaders and friends, she instead opted to seek re-election. She finished third in the primary election, which left her out of the general election. But at the last minute, front-runner President Alex White Plume was removed from the ballot and Fire Thunder was added. She lost the election to John Yellow Bird Steele.
Today, Fire Thunder proposes to work with individuals and groups on Pine Ridge to rewrite the constitution and the bylaws that govern elections and procedures.
“I am asking people to ask for a separation of powers. The council interferes with the court. We must ask for accountability,” she said.
Fire Thunder was a nationally known figure before she was elected to lead the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and after her removal she is in as much or more demand as a speaker and consultant. She is now working tirelessly to turn around the effects of colonization in Indian country and to retain a true traditional culture to the OST and to other nations.
Fire Thunder continues to promote health care for women, and the clinic she proposed is moving forward with a board of directors in charge. The idea of the clinic was the final straw for many on the tribal council, and the abortion issue provided a new motive to remove her from office.
Fire Thunder’s position on women’s health, rape, incest and abortion is her own, and not the position of the OST. She elevated the debate to a national level, not as president of the OST, but as a person who just happened to be president.
She, like many others in South Dakota, were angry at the state Legislature for passing a bill that would ban abortion in all cases except when necessary to save the woman’s life. Fire Thunder publicly joined a list of concerned state residents who opposed that legislation. Many people say her position was vindicated, and that she was right, when the voters of South Dakota rejected the ban as written.
“As a female, it was my responsibility to bring this awareness using the power of my office,” she said.
In the beginning of the clinic debate, Fire Thunder took the stance that it will be built to provide information to women and men, and to provide a comfortable and safe atmosphere for women to talk about and receive treatment on reproductive health.
“I keep thinking about the times I’ve worked with women who never had a choice,” Fire Thunder said. A registered nurse who worked in women’s health in California, she also worked briefly at an abortion clinic there.
Working toward a healthy Indian country is on Fire Thunder’s to-do list, which includes changing attitudes and removing the effects of hundreds of years of outside influences.
She will continue her 20 years of work to understand and cure the effects of colonization in Indian country.
“Colonization is the taking away of identities, it’s the breaking away of the rules to live by as a people, and that’s what colonization did,” she said.
Paramount to her future work will be bringing accountability to the tribal government on Pine Ridge. Her claim is that she was ousted illegally and by a tribal council that ignored the constitution of the United States, the constitution of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and of the tribe’s ordinances and resolutions when she was removed from office; she has repeatedly stated that she doesn’t want any other elected official to be subjected to that type of treatment.