PINE RIDGE, S.D. - The first woman to lead the Oglala Sioux Tribe is under
fire from a handful of dissenters over funding and handling of the Head
Start program and for negotiating loans.
Cecilia Fire Thunder has been accused of misconduct and negligence, and
there is a call for her resignation or impeachment because of claims that
she neglected the interests of the Head Start children.
On June 1, a group of about a dozen elders asked the tribal council to pass
a resolution that would have required Fire Thunder to resign.
Fire Thunder said she is still in office and going about her daily
activities and planning for the future of the Oglala Nation.
"I am still president; I have not been suspended," Fire Thunder said.
She couldn't speak directly to the contents of any complaint that may have
been filed, and she has not been served with any complaint.
Fire Thunder's main accuser, former OST Head Start director Alberta Iron
Cloud Miller, has called for her suspension. Another complaint was said to
have been filed, but could not be confirmed, against OST treasurer Crystal
Iron Cloud Miller claims the tribe failed to pay Head Start bills.
"During the [John Yellow Bird] Steele administration they had to lay off
teachers. This is an ongoing problem. It has been a huge challenge for a
long, long time," Fire Thunder said.
The Head Start program, by tribal council action, has been placed under the
management of Oglala Lakota College, Fire Thunder said. A meeting is
scheduled with the federal Head Start program to finalize the agreement
with OLC. The goal is to open the Head Start program, which serves more
than 500 children, by Sept. 1, Fire Thunder said.
"There is so much the tribe didn't do [in the past] to maintain the
integrity of Head Start," Fire Thunder said.
"The [tribal] council did a courageous thing and relinquished tribal
control. I doubt it would have survived otherwise. It will go back to
square one to build Head Start the way it should be," she said. "It will
emerge really strong, and develop.
"Sometimes out of chaos comes something positive."
The tribal council and the education committee were in charge of the Head
Start program. In 2004 teachers were laid off and a building was closed
because of asbestos, and a group of people marched on the tribal office
demanding answers and change. The federal Head Start program sent in an
administrator to take over the program.
The Head Start debacle is only part of Fire Thunder's problems. A group of
elders was angry that Fire Thunder, council members and other tribal
officials negotiated a loan with the Mdewakanton Shakopee Community. In
fact it was two loans.
The first loan, Fire Thunder said, would take care of the immediate tribal
debt that was inherited from the Steele administration.
"I told people about the loans. I was elected to make decisions," she said.
Elders at a recent meeting claim the loan will jeopardize tribal land and
that if the loan is not repaid, the land could be taken by the Shakopee.
The $17.7 million loan will be paid over a period of 15 years and lease
payments for the land will pay the debt. Only land held by the tribe is in
question. Tribal elders were upset that the land was used as collateral.
Allotted land is not involved and the lease payments on that land will be
paid directly to the families.
Another loan, for $20 million, will be used to improve the conditions at
Prairie Wind Casino. Repayment will come from casino revenues over the next
Some tribal members called and wrote to Shakopee with negative comments
about the tribe and administration.
Elders said the loans would only benefit a few people; the money would not
be going to all the people. The elders leveling the accusations are
traditional, and are against the Indian Reorganization Act form of
"I said to Mr. [Oliver] Red Cloud, 'You have been bashing the IRA
government over and over. I have heard that you don't support it and yet
you are calling the Shakopee. What the hell are you doing meddling in our
affairs? We are the IRA government, selected by the people to make
decisions,'" Fire Thunder said to Red Cloud.
She also asked the IRA detractors what contribution they have made to get
the tribe out of debt.
"We are in horrible debt and have an opportunity to take care of the
immediate debt. We are behind on a lot of payments, those are all inclusive
in this loan," Fire Thunder said.
The tribal elders and others who support the traditional form of government
have been critical of the IRA system for many years. One element of their
proposal is that all money coming into the tribe should be distributed to
the people and then let them decide where it should be spent.
The Treaty Council, headed by Oliver Red Cloud, is also an advocate of
At the meeting held at Billy Mills Hall in Pine Ridge Village, 10 elders
confronted Fire Thunder. Several council members were also present.
"When the elders step out of bounds and start to abuse people with words
and show disrespect to us, whose job is it to hold them responsible?" Fire
Thunder asked. "I guess it is okay to be 'abusive' in their words."
Fire Thunder said she confronted the elders with that statement and there
was no response. She also asked who was responsible to hold the elders
"They take something I said out of context and say I owe them an apology.
Respect is a two-way street: you have to show respect in order to get
respect," she said.
She said that after she spoke to the group, they went around the circle and
each verbally abused her.
"It's a sad day when they say they are teachers and show this bad behavior.
They are not my teacher," Fire Thunder said.
A local newspaper reported that when Fire Thunder left the meeting, she
refused to shake the elders' hands, which is a traditional custom.
Fire Thunder said that was not the case. "They refused to shake my hand;
the elders turned away," she said.
A hearing to attend to the accusations against Fire Thunder has not been