Cecilia Fire Thunder: Asserting Political and Cultural Sovereignty

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I am paying close attention to Cecilia Fire Thunder’s expansive exercise of tribal sovereignty in response to the South Dakota abortion ban. Fire Thunder, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, asserts a tribal perspective at the state and national levels, showing that tribes have a great deal to offer to the national abortion debate. We need more tribal leaders who will assert political and cultural authority on pressing American issues.

I want to raise a few points that I think all of us in Indian country should consider as we ponder Fire Thunder’s actions.

<b>More than two sides to abortion</b>

For those of us who do not subscribe to certain Christian doctrinal teachings, but who do subscribe to cultural imperatives about the sacredness of life, our moral and political response to terminating a pregnancy is not captured by either of the most vocal positions in the American abortion wars: the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” positions.

My Dakota mother and great-grandmother, for example, did not let me forget the powerful potential of my body to bear children. I was taught that a child is sacred, and that an unwanted pregnancy was to be assiduously avoided through safe-sex practices and, when I was younger, through abstinence.

My mother and great-grandmother never used the words “choice” or “rights,” but rather they spoke of “power” and “responsibility.” But my mother and great-grandmother also took a leap of faith that I would have the space to be responsible for my body – that I would not, for example, face rape.

At the same time, I was raised with a politicized understanding of the world. Both women and men in my family and in our tribe endured their share of hardship, including sexual violence. I grew to understand that within a colonial context. Abortion, in that context, might be considered a sad but necessary decision.

We differed from the “pro-choice” position in that we spoke of this and all reproductive decisions not as a “right” or a “choice,” but as a responsibility that grew out of the power in women’s bodies. We differed from the “pro-life” position in that we recognized that the decision could be shaped by the hardship and violence that haunt Indian people to this day. Our views about the sacred nature of the unborn child were not synonymous with fundamentalist Christian views. From my upbringing, I came to understand abortion as a difficult topic with only context-specific and imperfect solutions.

<b>An expansive exercise of tribal sovereignty </b>

In her vow to exercise tribal sovereignty and build a clinic on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Fire Thunder foregrounds sexual violence. She uses the words “choice” and “rights,” but she also demonstrates an understanding that colonization has shaped the reality of abortion. South Dakota’s new law does not allow for exceptions in the case of rape and incest. Fire Thunder reminds the American public that Native women are subjected to sexual violence at a much higher rate than American women generally. Native and other rural women also lack access to decent health care and family planning alternatives. The result is a higher incidence of unwanted pregnancy.

I see Fire Thunder’s response as not only about individual women’s rights to abortion, but also about the imperative that her tribal community exercises greater responsibility for American Indian life, broadly speaking, including the sacredness of the child and for the quality of that life. She also charges the state of South Dakota with its abortion ban of avoiding responsibility for attacking racism, colonization, sexism and poverty that make some women’s lives difficult in such a way that abortion becomes one of the only decisions they have left to make.

<b>Bringing tradition to the debate</b>

David Melmer’s April 2006 Indian Country Today article [“Oglala president takes center stage on women’s clinic,” Vol. 25, Iss. 43] noted that Fire Thunder brings “traditional cultural attitudes to the forefront of the debate.” But Fire Thunder can’t do that alone. I hope that we in Indian country will use Fire Thunder’s leadership as a starting point for thoughtful discussion. How can our cultural and spiritual perspectives inform our response to the pressing issues of abortion, rape and the need for responsible family planning by both men and women?

As I understand Fire Thunder, the Lakota care about their responsibilities to each other and to the Creator, yet those responsibilities have been shaped and sometimes distorted by the historical links among women, violence and colonization. Fire Thunder attempts to strike a balance in her analysis of abortion that responds to the particular realities of her community.

She also unapologetically asserts the political sovereignty of the Oglala Lakota Nation to make its own decision about abortion law. Within that, she inserts a new idea into an ongoing national debate: traditional Lakota values and perspectives about kinship responsibilities and terminating pregnancy should inform tribal law and policy. Fire Thunder takes a step toward asserting a different kind of sovereignty, what Comanche Nation Chairman Wallace Coffey and American Indian legal scholar Rebecca Tsosie call cultural sovereignty.

Thus Fire Thunder’s emergent national voice has the potential to offer us something different than the usual dichotomous positions on abortion. I hope that she and the people she represents will continue developing the cultural piece of that analysis.

Depth of cultural analysis is important so that non-Natives do not detach Native perspectives from their nuanced, spiritual-political foundations in order to claim us for one side or another of the abortion wars.

American Indian tribes need to maintain a sensitive balance. We must exercise political sovereignty by rejecting efforts by mostly white, male lawmakers to exercise regulatory authority as if we are not here.

On the other side, we need to be careful that our particular cultural perspectives are not represented shallowly in support of a largely non-Native political agenda that does not necessarily respond to the priorities and values of Indian country.

<i>Kim TallBear, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, is an assistant professor of American Indian studies at Arizona State University in Tempe. She is the daughter of LeeAnn TallBear and great-granddaughter of the late Agnes Dauphine-Heminger.