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Hail Cecilia Fire Thunder: A voice for women and the Indian family

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There are too many places, in and out of Indian country, where the lot of
women has fallen tragically to the brawn and will of men and the ravishes
of an alcohol-infested existence. Such has happened in too many communities
on too many reservations and in Pine Ridge, S.D., it has become as well a
pitiful and traumatic fact of life.

Thus we hail the decisive election victory of Cecilia Fire Thunder as the
new president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. She defeated
Russell Means by more than 600 votes in her first attempt and his third to
seek the tribal presidency. Both Fire Thunder and Means agree that the
women's vote put the first woman president of the OST over the top. Fire
Thunder asserts the vote represents the women's power coming to bear on
Pine Ridge. The tribe's first woman president was quoted last week saying:
"The women have played an integral role in keeping things going. Going to
school, getting degrees, working, taking care of the family (and winning
the election) was, that's the value of the Lakota woman re-elevated back to
where it belongs." (KOTA News)

Fire Thunder has dedicated much of her adult life to the defense of the
Indian family and the struggle against abuse of Indian women and children.
She is an advocate of the rescue and use of the Lakota language by the
younger generation. Marjene Ambler, in Tribal College Journal, wrote,
"Lakota language advocate Cecilia Fire Thunder uses healing ceremonies to
free the tongues of people too ashamed to 'remember' their Native language.
In many cases, these feelings toward the language have led to hating their
own skin color." Indian Country Today columnist Suzan Shown Harjo wrote on
our Web site edition recently about Fire Thunder's work "to educate Lakota
people about Lakota traditions of gender balance and the sacredness of
children and elders." Harjo pointed out that Fire Thunder's Lakota name
means "Good Hearted Woman." A practical nurse, Fire Thunder established an
organization, Sacred Circle, to address domestic violence. Her career
stands as testimony of the effort to help rebuild the self-esteem of women
in her community and nationally. She is just the kind of courageous and
outgoing woman leader that a people wanting to re-strengthen their nation
from the ground up, family by family and tiospaye by tiospaye, could appeal
to for understanding and assistance.

The election of a woman to the nation's highest office is a first for the
Oglala people and we hope it signals a new volition to confront the issue
of respect and rebuilding of families for that embattled community. Pine
Ridge is not alone as a community, not by a long shot, to be in the
quagmire and tragedy of family violence. However, it could be the place
where the body politic begins to heal itself, from the women outward. The
election of Cecilia Fire Thunder - a grass-roots advocate to properly
challenge even Russell Means - represents just this kind of potential new
mandate by the voting community.

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We congratulate Cecilia in her victory and wish the outstanding woman
leader all the perseverance and support she deserves. If the Oglala
families - including the strong family men - get behind their new leader
and work with her to build coalitions for political power and development,
much could be accomplished. Not only from the federal government but also
from foundations and private donors, Cecilia is well suited, as a woman
leader heading up a new administration, to bring home important benefits in
response to the aspirations of the Oglala communities.

Most importantly, Cecilia Fire Thunder will be an inspiration to young
women to reach for leadership and pursue the path of self-esteem and
self-dignity. From consideration as sacred and as centrally important to
the nations, Indian women have too often been denigrated and abused. This
is the conclusion of the "Family Violence and American Indians/Alaska
Natives: A Report to the Indian Health Service Office of Women's Health," a
compendium produced in October 2002, by Dr. Laura Williams, et. al. Sexual
assault against Indian women is more than double that among blacks and
three times that of whites. Forty-six percent of violence and 70 percent of
crime is alcohol related. Acquaintances (38 percent) and strangers (46
percent) have the highest rates as perpetrators against Indian women.
Family and intimates account for around 10 percent. In domestic violence,
poverty and alcohol are the major factors.

We commend Cecilia for focusing immediately on the economic and financial
transparency situation at the tribe. She notes it is her first mandate and
has been the sore point about the Oglala Sioux Tribe for her whole base of
supporters. The Pine Ridge reservation suffers from extreme unemployment -
a severe lack of any work opportunity for most of the tribal youth and
membership. Yet, specific business and tiospaye-building initiatives are
growing in capacity and are important pieces of the nation-rebuilding
puzzle. These are essential building blocks of any new campaign to tackle
the serious problems of Indian country. We urge the foundation world and
the NGO community to pay attention to Pine Ridge, its issues and problems;
to support the work of both government but also of independent
organizations as they confront the problems of their people. More
importantly, we urge Indian country itself to identify ways it can create
or stimulate employment opportunities for the Oglala Sioux Tribe and South
Dakota's other tribal communities. It is time to end the despair and
restore opportunity.

Again, congratulations to Cecilia Fire Thunder and to the children, women
and men of the Oglala Sioux Oyate. May your path be well guided on the Red
Road to peace and prosperity.