PINE RIDGE, S.D. - For the first time in history a woman could become the
leader of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, one of the largest tribes in the country.
It isn't the historical aspect of the job that interests Cecelia Fire
Thunder, she's more interested in taking care of people.
"I haven't given it that much thought. I see myself as a leader, and I have
to be honest, that was not a consideration. It's almost like being a woman
is taking care of everybody, I just want to take care of more people," she
"Being president is about being able to do more, being able to have the
power in a good way to get people together, to work together and get more
She said her greatest attribute is the ability to facilitate and bring
people together. She also has the skills to problem solve, set goals,
create action plans and stay on top of things until they are done, she
"Before we do anything we need to create confidence in tribal government
and we need people to trust us. It's not about me, not about one person
with solutions or answers. I know I have to rely on everyone around me,"
Fire Thunder was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation and at age 16 her
family was relocated to Los Angeles. She finished high school there. After
a failed marriage with two children, she attended nursing school. She has
worked as a nurse ever since.
At age 24 she became a community organizer. She lived in a community where
80 percent of the residents were on welfare, and she saw that many families
spent money unwisely on food. She helped form an organization that taught
people how to use the money they had to buy vegetables and fruit and less
macaroni and cheese.
Fire Thunder spent 24 years in Los Angeles and San Diego. She was
instrumental is starting one of the first free clinics in Los Angeles, an
American Indian urban health clinic.
"I became very good at negotiating with state offices. We did a lot of
lobbying work. I learned how to lobby, how to work the halls and learned to
talk to legislators and became very good at it."
When Fire Thunder returned home to the Pine Ridge Reservation she started
work as a nurse at Bennett County Hospital.
"I came home with no agenda, no expectations, I just wanted to come home.
Once here I started to listen and realized there was a lot of work to do."
She was instrumental in starting a women's society in 1988. The purpose was
to talk about what women could do to help the community so they went door
to door to ask what about the problems on the reservation. One of the most
mentioned issues was violence against women.
That led to the beginning of a battered women's shelter, which has become a
model for Indian country. It took 15 years to bring the Cangleska shelter
to where it is today, she said.
"I think the important message is this issue, it takes that long to make a
dent. That's called commitment. Change doesn't occur overnight, it doesn't
happen just because you want it to. You have to hang in there, and hang in
there and hang in there. That's what commitment is about," she said.
"I have a long history of being committed and finishing what I start; a
willingness to hang in there until something gets done."
Fire Thunder told candidates for the tribal council that before anything
gets done it is necessary to create confidence in tribal government and a
need for trust.
"That's the only way we will do that. I told them, I as president and you
as council will have to work hard to create solutions for all things and
regain the confidence of the people. I have seen the confidence erode and
Fire Thunder ran for president 10 years ago and finished third in the
primary. This year she finished second. The top vote getter was activist
and actor Russell Means. The two will face off on Nov. 2 in the general
Fire Thunder said she feels confident about her chances. She has taken it
upon herself to visit all nine districts on Pine Ridge and listen to
"I've been listening, watching and learning. Life is about learning, every
experience is a lesson and if you record it for future reference you will
"There is a lot of strength in this community, a lot of smart people with
good ideas. We don't have to reinvent the wheel."