Heading up the majority

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PINE RIDGE, S.D. – As the U.S. heads toward an eagerly anticipated presidential election, South Dakota is in the unique position of having five prominent Native women leading county Democratic committees and organizing strategies to assure a Barack Obama victory here.

All five women are dynamic leaders in their communities and have assumed positions heading their county Democratic committees on top of their high-responsibility day jobs.

Elsie Meeks, an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, heads the Jackson County Democratic Committee. She is president and CEO of Oweesta, a national organization working for Native community economic development.

Julie Garreau is executive director of the Cheyenne River Youth Project.

Helen Gilbert, Santee Sioux, is the tribal field coordinator for the “Obama for America” campaign in South Dakota.

Kimberly Killer, of Pine Ridge, works with Native students at Oglala Lakota College teaching leadership skills.

And Cecelia Fire Thunder, a former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, is currently coordinator of the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains, Reclaiming Our Sacredness, a tribal coalition of domestic violence and sexual assault shelters and programs operating on tribal lands across the Great Plains region.

Fire Thunder chairs South Dakota’s Bennett County Democratic Committee, and she talked to Indian Country Today about her work.

Indian Country Today: How did you get to be chair of the county committee?

Cecelia Fire Thunder: By working hard! [laughs] And I’ve been very active as a Democrat, working at a variety of Democratic elections, doing voter registration, working on Sen. Tom Daschle’s and Sen. Tim Johnson’s campaign and for Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth.

ICT: Sounds like you’ve been involved in politics for a long time.

Fire Thunder: I’m 61 years old and I’ve been a Democrat since I was 18. No matter where I lived – and I pretty much grew up in Los Angeles because I was relocated – my mother made sure we registered and voted Democratic. Is that cool or what?

ICT: So she was an ardent Democrat?

Fire Thunder: The reason my mother was such a supporter of elections in America, as an Indian woman who didn’t have a whole lot of education but did have a whole lot of patriotism, was my uncle, who was retired from the U.S. Army and was a highly decorated veteran. She always associated my uncle’s military career as a real indication that he put his life on the line for this country, so it was only fitting that we also honored his commitment to this country by always registering and voting. And so when I came back to South Dakota in 1987 I immediately registered as a Democrat and of course started doing work to support the Democratic candidates.

ICT: Where do you live?

Fire Thunder: On Pine Ridge, in a little town called Martin, S.D., in Bennett County; and the county is part of the reservation. And it’s a very interesting county. We have white people and Indians living side by side and my work has always been working with everybody.

ICT:: When did you become head of the Democratic Party there?

Fire Thunder: I was nominated and put in place by the current chairman, but the bottom line is the former leadership wanted me to do it because, well, all I can say is I have worked very hard as a Democrat.

ICT:: And in your tribe, too.

Fire Thunder: The people who put me in office were not Indians; they were white people. The reason why I’m doing this, along with some of my women colleagues, is to create a much broader agenda for everyone living in our counties.

ICT:: How do you account for the fact that Indian women are heading up five of the nine committees here?

Fire Thunder: Can I just say this? We have a long history of working hard and being committed and we rise up to the occasion when the work needs to get done.

ICT:: Do you all work together and coordinate your activities?

Fire Thunder: Oh yeah, we’re all on e-mail. We talk to each other through e-mail messages like “Hang in there!” and “Keep up the good work!” As a former president, I’ve also created a large number of relationships with tribal leaders and I have an obligation to encourage tribal leaders to help organize their counties. And it’s our responsibility to make sure everybody who is registered gets to the polls and votes.

ICT:: Do you also do voter registration?

Fire Thunder: Yes, we all do. The other exciting thing is being the chairs of the counties we all have access to databases where we can actually look at who all is registered to vote, who voted in the last election, and out of that we create a strategy to find people who didn’t vote and encourage them to vote. It’s all about training people and showing them how to do it and creating the relationships. It’s about creating relationships with people in each county. It’s about learning how the system works.

We’re gearing up for the coming election now, so we’ll be doing a lot of community-based stuff. We don’t know yet where and how we’re going to do that, but you know what? We have gotten more Indians to the polls in the last five years than ever and we expect that number to increase. And the reason why we do what we do is that it’s important for people to put their voice out there when they make that check mark.

Tribal politics and elections are important; however, who we put in Washington is important, too, because they ultimately have the final voice in making sure that resources that the treaties say are our rights are coming to us. I’m really excited to see so many people becoming more aware of the issues and asking the right questions.

ICT: It sounds like you’re all going to be working really hard till November.

Fire Thunder: Of course, all our evenings and weekends. We’ve all been doing this for a long time. We know our communities. But our work is paying off, obviously, when you have five Indian women heading up five of the Democratic parties.