Change, upheaval and surprises mark tribal elections in the Great Plains

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RAPID CITY, S.D. – It was anything but a typical election cycle for the Oglala Sioux Tribe this time around – it was confusing, frustrating and aggravating, and ripe with accusations of interference.

The problems began Oct. 3 with the primary elections and have yet to subside.

First, misprinted primary ballots caused the election board to consider re-scheduling the primary. The ballots’ wording instructed voters in some districts to vote for more tribal council candidates than the district is allowed to seat on the council. After deliberation, the elections board decided to order a new primary and a delayed general election for tribal seats for one of the districts.

Then, current President Alex White Plume, the top vote-getter for tribal president from the primary, was removed from the general ballot four days before the Nov. 7 election on the grounds that he had a felony conviction. The OST election board claimed it had received a background check that proved he was a convicted felon. Felons, under the OST Constitution, are not allowed to serve as elected officials.

White Plume said that he understood the 1982 conviction was reduced to a misdemeanor. Under current law, the charge would have been a misdemeanor.

He appealed and asked that the entire election process start from the beginning with the primary. But the general election went on as ordered by the tribal election board.

That meant John Yellow Bird Steele, who eventually will be returned to the president’s office, and former OST President Cecelia Fire Thunder, impeached in August before her two-year term had ended, faced each other. Fire Thunder ran for re-election in the OST primary, finishing in third place behind Steele.

Fire Thunder said she favored a completely new election process starting with the primary, not because she lost but because, as she said, “there were too many discrepancies and lack of fairness and especially the background checks.”

“Bring in an outside entity for the sake of trust. People have lost faith and trust. I’m not saying people who ran for election are bad people, but for the people’s sake we should do the whole election over,” Fire Thunder said.

White Plume has served the last six months as the tribal president. He moved up from vice president after Fire Thunder’s impeachment.

At the end of the day, Steele was returned to office and began his fifth two-year term as president. Steele gathered 2,341 votes to Fire Thunder’s 1,398 votes. Steele also is among the elite of OST presidents, being one of only three elected to two consecutive terms in 2000 –’02 and 2002 – ’04.

Fire Thunder, Steele’s successor in 2004 and the first woman to be elected president of the OST, was impeached just five months short of serving a full term. After three attempts to remove her from office, the tribal council finally connected with an issue that would stick – abortion.

Fire Thunder had proposed opening a women’s health clinic on the Pine Ridge Reservation that would address the health care of all women, including abortion if requested by the woman. Members of the tribal council and some pro-life advocates mustered her out of office for advocating abortion and not consulting with the tribal council.

Her proposed clinic was in response to the nearly complete ban on abortion passed by the South Dakota Legislature and signed by the governor in March. That bill was defeated by the voters on Nov. 7.

After White Plume’s removal from the ballot, Fire Thunder had just two days to mount
a campaign.

“I thought we did pretty good for two days of campaigning,” Fire Thunder said.

She said she had heard that some of the tribal council members would initiate a move to re-schedule the entire election process; this, however, could not be confirmed.

“But if things are still a ‘go,’ I plan on setting up a meeting with Steele and discuss with him some of the things that we were working on, especially the financial piece,” she said.

White Plume earlier appealed the decision to remove his name from the ballot with the tribal Election Board of Appeals, which ruled that a new primary should be held and then a general election planned. The OST election board rejected that ruling and went ahead with the general election without White Plume’s name on the ballot.