In December 1994, my friend and colleague Birgil Kills Straight, along with
Alex White Plume and Eugenio White Hawk, all Oglala Lakotas, dedicated the
Big foot Memorial Ride, an arduous 300 mile horseback ride through freezing
weather to several hundred Lakota ancestors who were massacred on Dec. 29,
1890 by the U.S. Army at Wounded Knee. The ride became an annual event that
continues to this day, and the fifth day of every ride from 1986 onward has
been dedicated to the Earth Mother and to the women as "life-givers."
In December 1994, the ninth year of the ride, the whole year was dedicated
to women specifically. As "sacred life-givers," or "people makers," women
play a central role in Lakota culture and society. This honoring of women
is traced to the Lakota origin story, and is also based on the fact that
the White Buffalo Calf Woman gave the Lakota people their Sacred Pipe, or
On Dec. 11 - ten years after the memorial ride dedicated to women - Cecelia
Apple Fire Thunder (Tawacin Wastewin, Good Thoughts Woman) was installed as
the first woman president in the history of the Oglala Sioux Tribe (OST).
It was OST's 37th Presidential Inauguration, since the first Oglala
administration of Robert Bad Wound under the Indian Reorganization Act in
1934. Saturday's event was titled Wocekiye na Woapiye Un Oyate Ki Iglu
Wosakapi Ktse, which translated means, "Through Prayer and Healing The
People Will Be Strengthened."
Alex White Plume (Inyan Hoksi, Stone Child) was installed as OST vice
president, and the tribal council members from the various districts of the
reservation were sworn in as well.
Other dignitaries in attendance included Medicine Man Rick Two Dogs, former
OST President John Yellow Bird Steele,. former OST Vice President and
Secretary Teresa Two Bulls, who was just elected to the Senate in the South
Dakota Legislature, Larson Medicine Horse from Crow Agency, former OST
President Paul Iron Cloud, Hereditary Chief and former OST Vice President
Mel Lonehill, and the 19th generation Keeper of the Sacred Pipe Arvol
Looking Horse. Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American
Indian attended as a keynote speaker. Dignitaries from other indigenous
nations, the United States government, and congressional officers were also
at the inauguration.
Wilma Mankiller, the first and only woman elected as principal chief of the
Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, was a keynote speaker. During her address,
Mankiller said that her friend Cecelia "gets up every single day, says a
prayer in her own language and goes out to fight for her people."
In her inaugural speech, Cecelia said that her administration will be
dealing with many "challenges" rather than "problems." Her reason for
expressing herself in this manner, she said, is that she refuses to view
her own people, who are her relatives, as "problems." By working together
as a nation, she said, the people of the Oglala Lakota nation can resolve
the many challenges they face. She spoke of her desire to have an
administration based on healing, and a love for her people and her Oyate
(nation). Cecelia thanked the Creator for making her "a Lakota woman," and
for making her "a Lakota woman on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation." She
spoke of the suffering of so many women throughout the world, and said she
was so happy to be born into the Oglala Lakota culture, a culture that
accords women a degree of freedom that so many other woman throughout the
world never experience.
As Birgil's guest, I had a bird's eye view of the inauguration at Little
Wound School in the town of Kyle, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Friday night, I attended an Inipi or Purification Lodge ceremony
(incorrectly termed "sweat lodge") with members of Birgil's tiwahe and
tiospaye (extended family). Early Saturday morning, I walked and looked out
across the vast landscape. It was cold and breezy. As I looked out in the
distance toward the pasture I saw a small herd of Birgil's horses running
toward the corral. One of Birgil's grandsons was bringing them in to get
them ready for the inauguration. It was a beautiful sight.
The horses were needed because the inaugural planning committee had decided
that a procession of horseback riders would be an appropriate ceremonial
opening for the inauguration. This was in large part to honor Alex White
Plume as one of the original riders in the Big foot Memorial Ride, and also
to honor President Fire Thunder.
I walked out to the corral to help Birgil and some of his family members
get the horses ready for the procession. It felt especially good to see
young Lakota people working with the horses; the Oglala Lakota Nation is,
after all, a horse nation. When all the horses were prepared, Birgil asked
me if I was going to ride, and I said that I would if there was a horse for
me. I ended up riding a sorrel named "Little Joe," whose nickname is
"Buckin Joe." At 10:30 a.m. those of us riding into Kyle saddled up and
began the one-hour ride to town.
When we got to town we waited at the Kyle Rodeo Grounds. At the appointed
time, those of us representing the North direction rode our horses from the
rodeo grounds to the main road, where we joined the many riders coming in
from the West, including OST Vice President Alex White Plume. Then we all
rode East a short ways until we met the riders from the South and East
directions. Standing along the road to greet the horseback riders were
Pres. Fire Thunder, her family members and other people attending the
Eventually, the 70 some horseback riders turned in to the parking lot in
front of Little Wound School and formed a large circle. Medicine Man Rick
Two Dogs gave an opening prayer, and during a brief opening statement
Birgil Kills Straight mentioned a Lakota prophecy about the return of the
horse nation. At the precise moment that he mentioned this prophecy, the
horse 1 was riding and many other horses in the circle neighed loudly.
During the inauguration ceremony, Birgil presented Pres. Fire Thunder with
a shield (wahacanka) and a knife (mila) that Vonnie Bush, the lead
organizer of the inaugural committee, purchased for Fire Thunder. These
items represent the protection she will be carrying for herself, her family
and for her people.
Pres. Fire Thunder's election is a significant milestone in the history of
the Oglala Lakota Nation. It is customary for women to be caretakers of the
family circle. They are the matriarchs, but their role traditionally is
primarily with the family, and for this reason they generally rarely served
in politics directly. However, the prophecies said that in the future the
Oglala Lakota people will experience different and uncommon events. Pres.
Fire Thunder's election is certainly one such event.
She is also a significant role model for young girls and women, not just in
her own nation, but also for indigenous women throughout Indian country.
Her powerful work over many years on issues such as domestic violence
prevention have helped prepare Ms. Fire Thunder to fulfill her role as a
leader and a caretaker of the family of the Oglala Lakota Nation as a
whole. Given the incredible economic hardships present on the Pine Ridge
Indian Reservation, Pres. Fire Thunder, Vice President White Plume and the
entire Oglala Sioux Tribal Council will face many difficult hardships
during the next two years.
In 1990 the Big Foot riders suffered through 80 degrees below-zero weather,
and every winter, through their sacrifice, the participants in the Big foot
Memorial Ride, some as young as five years old, powerfully demonstrate that
the Oglala Lakota people know how to persevere on the basis of their
linguistic, cultural and spiritual traditions. The inauguration gave notice
that this healing and prayerful energy will provide the foundation for the
policies of the Fire Thunder administration.
Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is Indigenous Law Research Coordinator at
Kumeyaay Community College on the Sycuan Indian Reservation, co-founder and
co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and a columnist for Indian