PORCUPINE, S.D. – The first woman elected to lead the Oglala Sioux tribe was removed from office with five months remaining in her first term.
Cecelia Fire Thunder, former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, met the anti-abortion movement and lost. At a hearing on June 29, tribal councilman Will Peters, architect of the complaints against her, said at the outset that abortion was the issue.
“We are here today because of the abortion. We will plan for and fight for all Lakota, including the unborn,” Peters said.
Fire Thunder opened the floodgates of criticism when she suggested opening a women’s health clinic on the reservation in response to the state of South Dakota’s near-complete ban on abortion.
Asked if abortion was the real reason for her impeachment, she said, “I don’t know what’s motivating them. For a lot of them, they have personal stuff against me. They were not paying attention,” Fire Thunder said.
She said the decision violated the tribal constitution and that she would challenge the decision.
Fire Thunder accused the council of not following the proper procedures as set by the tribal constitution and bylaws. She said the complaint against her was filed two days after the motion to suspend her on May 29, and that she did not receive any of her accusers’ evidence until the day of the hearing, both violations of the bylaws, she said.
Following a two-hour, closed-door deliberation, Peters in public forum moved to impeach Fire Thunder immediately. On a 9 – 4 vote, the required two-thirds majority, she was removed. The hearing took place with a reduced council; there are 18 council members from across the Pine Ridge Reservation.
After the state of South Dakota passed the nation’s most stringent anti-abortion ban, Fire Thunder, along with numerous others, spoke out against the ban on the grounds that it did not include incest or rape or the health of the mother. Some of those critics of the ban did not survive the primary elections held in the state in early June.
Fire Thunder, in response to the ban, suggested opening a women’s health clinic on the reservation to avoid the state law.
Her opponents accused her of bringing the state and federal government onto the reservation.
“She invited federal and state law onto our sovereign reservation by challenging the new state abortion law, to begin her own abortion clinic under the auspices of the Oglala Sioux Tribe,” the letter of notification of Fire Thunder’s suspension stated.
Fire Thunder told the council that having an idea, or speaking out about issues that go to the heart of her convictions, are not grounds for impeachment. She said the clinic was an idea and that “ideas and opinions are not punishable.”
Fire Thunder, in numerous media interviews and stories, suggested the clinic was to be a women’s health facility and, as she told the council, she stayed away from the word “abortion.”
That’s not how Peters saw the situation. He said that Fire Thunder said she would build a Planned Parenthood clinic, “and Planned Parenthood is synonymous with abortion.”
Peters and Councilman Garfield Steele, a co-signer on the complaint, brought six charges against Fire Thunder.
The first charge cited Fire Thunder as organizing the clinic outside of her authority as president and that she didn’t consult with the council about the project and get their permission. The vote constituted the needed majority to impeach Fire Thunder, and the remaining five charges were not read.
Other charges were that Fire Thunder used the media, the U.S. Postal Service and the Oglala Sioux Tribe to solicit funds for the clinic. Fire Thunder said she never solicited funds and that all funds were voluntarily sent in, and that some media included an address for donations on their own.
She said any money that was not designated for the clinic was, or will be, returned.
Fire Thunder admitted mistakes were made by her, said she learned from them and asked forgiveness for those mistakes, but said the council also made mistakes. She asked that the complaint be dismissed because there was a lot of work to do for the future of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
Citing the constitution, Peters reminded the council that the president was to carry out all orders of the council and the council shall assist the president in carrying out those orders.
“I can’t look at her as a woman; she is president. She should be focused on the tribe and her duties are, first and foremost, to the tribe,” Peters said.
Fire Thunder said she had a responsibility to lead the tribe and expand services, and a women’s health clinic that educated women and men about reproductive choices was part of addressing health issues on the reservation.
“In the past, everything was about the children. I can’t tell you [women] what to do with your bodies, but when you are pregnant the person inside you doesn’t belong to you. Women with a baby inside don’t have a choice,” Steele said.
The scene in the Community Action Program building in Porcupine was that of an anti-abortion rally. Packets of material depicting the image of Jesus, a trinket style of rosary and bumper stickers were passed out to the crowd.
Alex White Plume assumed the role of president pro tem. His position of vice president will remain open until the November election.