Editors’ Note: Cecelia Fire Thunder was interviewed in the Rapid City, S.D., office of the First People’s Fund on June 16 by Indian Country Today “Healthwise” columnist Kara Briggs and ICT senior editor Jose Barreiro. Mohawk midwife Katsi Cook, Mohawk Bear Clan Mother Louise McDonald and Lori Lea Pourier, of the First People’s Fund in Rapid City, also participated in the discussion.
RAPID CITY, S.D. – Cecelia Fire Thunder, the elected though currently suspended chairman of the Oglala Sioux Nation, believes that stopping sexual violence, domestic assault and incest – and caring for its victims – needs to rise to the top of the political agenda on the Pine Ridge reservation.
Fire Thunder got in trouble with her tribal council and some on the reservation this spring when she announced that abortions could be provided on the reservation under federal law even if a proposed state ban was enacted by voters next November.
“I got really angry about a bunch of white guys in the state Legislature making decisions about my body, again,” the 59-year-old nurse and first female chairman of the Oglala Sioux told Indian Country Today in June. She spoke to ICT in defiance of a tribal council order that she not speak to the media.
When she took her stand for legal abortion this spring, a flurry of outside feminist and Christian Right opinions obscured the story of a group of Oglala women, including Fire Thunder, who are incorporating the Sacred Choices Wellness Center in Kyle.
Fire Thunder was suspended by the council in late May when outside dollars to support the center started arriving by mail at tribal headquarters. The council says Fire Thunder solicited these donations, while her supporters say she didn’t. On the same day as her suspension, the council voted to ban abortions on Pine Ridge.
A group of tribal women who are organizing Fire Thunder’s proposed Sacred Choices Wellness Center as a private, nonprofit organization met and agreed to honor the tribe’s abortion ban.
Still, Fire Thunder faces an impeachment hearing on June 30. She plans to fight for her office.
“The abortion issue,” she said, “is the key that opens the padlock to sexual deviancy that is occurring on the Pine Ridge reservation.”
Sexual deviancy is what Fire Thunder calls rape and incest: crimes that are rarely adjudicated on the reservation. The epidemic nature of the abuse is noticed in drug and alcohol treatment programs where, Fire Thunder said, 87 percent of women will disclose that they were sexually abused, many as children. The ultimate end of domestic assault is rape, what Fire Thunder calls the “ultimate subjugation.”
Most women on the Pine Ridge reservation, she said, know someone who has been raped. And the stories pour out as women across the reservation start to talk: stories about children bearing male relatives’ babies.
Rape victims in particular, Fire Thunder said, need to have the option to terminate the resulting pregnancy.
“Having sex with a female member of your family was something that we banished for, speaking traditionally,” she said.
Lakota tradition – not the influence of little white churches that dot the countryside – is at the heart of conversations in communities and families across Pine Ridge.
Some, including Fire Thunder, say that historically Lakota women knew how to perform abortions and caringly send that spirit back where it came from. Others disagree, including language and culture teacher Philomine Lakota, who said she can’t find a word in Lakota for the purposeful termination of pregnancy.
For 15 years Lakota has held womanhood ceremonies for about 10 young teenage girls a year in the hope of preventing unplanned pregnancies and encouraging healthy families. She wishes that someone like Fire Thunder would raise money to support these ceremonies and expand them so more young women could be reached.
Near the town of Oglala, community elders have drafted a petition which, in part, reads, “As members of the Oglala Sioux tribe, we are vehemently against the murder of innocent babies any circumstances.”
As preparations for a Sun Dance began, an Oglala woman said that there should be a tribal election about legal abortion – but only the women should be allowed to vote.
Many of the quiet majority of women who elected Fire Thunder would speak out, said Lori Lea Pourier, of the First People’s Fund in Rapid City, but they don’t want to get involved in the shrill tone that politics around abortion has taken.
Norma Rendon, who works in a domestic violence shelter run by the nonprofit Canleska Inc., spoke scornfully of the men, including some tribal council members who have been quoted in the local newspapers, for talking about women’s business.
“I may not be for abortion,” Rendon said. “I had six children. I raised all six by myself without any kind of financial or emotional support. But I can’t make that choice for other women.”
Former tribal council member Deb Rooks-Cook, whose father was once tribal chairman, remembered calling on the council to take a stand against sexual violence 20 years ago.
But he told her not to expect any response. She remembered him saying, “You’re talking to the perpetrators.”
Two years ago, Rooks-Cook was part of the two-thirds majority who voted for Fire Thunder. She supported her because she believed that a woman could solve the tribe’s financial and organizational problems. She said Fire Thunder, like other politicians, has gotten waylaid by other issues.
But Fire Thunder said the clinic was always going to be run by other tribal women from the Kyle area, not by the tribe. The group recently met to discuss their future.
Sacred Choices board member Emma Featherman Sam said that the newly incorporated organization would honor the tribe’s abortion ban. The group also renamed itself the Sacred Choices Wellness Center, which would allow the board to open a gymnasium and offer a wider range of medical care than only gynecological care.
Fire Thunder said she is spending time in prayer and seeking guidance in anticipation of her June 30 impeachment hearing. She acknowledged that her term has been tumultuous, though other leaders say there are people who would criticize Fire Thunder for issues as innocuous as the color of shoes she might wear on a given day.
Soon after her election in November 2004, she was suspended after the tribe was forced to relinquish management of its Head Start Program because of its mismanagement during the previous administration.
She was again suspended when she secured a $38 million loan from the Shakopee Mdewakanton, which operates Mystic Lake Casino in Prior Lake, Minn.
More than $18 million of the loan was used to pay part of the debt inherited from the past administration, Fire Thunder said. Twenty million dollars went toward new construction at the tribe’s casino in the hope of bringing in more revenue.
Fire Thunder said she was inspired to speak out against South Dakota’s abortion ban by Tex Hall, the former National Congress of the American Indian president, who in 1999 brought the organization’s first resolution against domestic violence. Fire Thunder remembered tears filling her eyes as Hall, in his customary cowboy hat and boots, expressed outrage over the abuse of women and children.
She was left with the belief that national Indian leaders must acknowledge abuse if communities are going to end it. More than that, she talks about the need for recognition of “women’s sovereignty,” which is the right of women to make decisions for their own bodies.
“We’re in the middle of a quiet revolution,” Fire Thunder said. “And it’s awful painful.”
Kara Briggs is senior fellow for the American Indian Policy and Media Initiative at Buffalo State College.