Oglala president takes center stage on women’s clinic

PINE RIDGE, S.D. – The nearly total ban on abortion by the state of South Dakota has vaulted a tribal president to national prominence with her plan to build a clinic for women on a reservation that will offer reproductive choices for all women.

Cecilia Fire Thunder, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, surprisingly became a national figure in the fight to provide women with reproductive choices and rights. She is bringing traditional cultural attitudes to the forefront of the debate for the first time nationally.

The development of a clinic planned to be opened on the Pine Ridge Reservation to serve all women of western South Dakota and Nebraska is squarely in her hands.

Fire Thunder’s focus on this issue is not surprising; she has a background in the battle for women’s rights. She is also a nurse and has worked with rape victims and AIDS patients. She has also worked in an abortion clinic in California.

At issue is a bill passed by the South Dakota Legislature that bans all abortions except to save the life of the mother. Signed on March 6 by Gov. Mike Rounds, the bill will go into effect on July 1 if not enough signatures are collected on a petition to allow the state’s residents to decide the issue in November. Victims of rape and incest were not exempted from the bill.

Fire Thunder is co-chairman of a statewide organization called the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, which is made up of 15 state residents. They are circulating the petition, which needs 16,000 signatures. Fire Thunder said she is confident the people of South Dakota will overturn the proposed law. She is not confronting the governor or the Legislature, she said: her actions are all about a woman’s right to choose.

After the bill’s passage, Fire Thunder stepped up with her challenge. At first she suggested that a clinic might be built only if a referendum fails. Her position is now clear: There will be a clinic on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the Sacred Choices Clinic.

“I keep thinking about all the times I’ve worked with women who never had a choice,” said Fire Thunder.

Fire Thunder’s interest is primarily to offer women a choice, but she also wants a component of the clinic to emphasize education for men, women and youth about family planning and sexual responsibilities.

“Teenage boys rape girls. It’s like in our society they are given permission. We look at movies, magazines – everything is sexual and it gives the young men permission.

“I’m not being puritanical; I think we are overexposed. It’s part of our country’s legacy,” Fire Thunder said.

Planning for the clinic is under way. Volunteers will gather in early April to begin formulating a strategy. Attorneys are exploring all possible legal problems that might arise, Fire Thunder said.

South Dakota Attorney General Larry Long said that state jurisdiction would not apply on the reservation. If the law stands, however, only physicians and medical staff who perform abortions would be prosecuted. The woman would not be punished.

Fire Thunder’s attorneys said her plan could work if the medical staff is American Indian, should the law go into effect. But the reservation is subject to federal law and Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land, Fire Thunder asserted.

The clinic will be a private nonprofit and will serve all women of western South Dakota and Nebraska, she said. So far $5,000 has been raised from supporters across the country.

“I am making it clear we are supporting the constitutional rights of all women across the country and particularly South Dakota to make their own choices.”

Fire Thunder said the attention she has received has been surprising. She received more than 600 e-mails from as far away as New Zealand and Australia.

“I’m excited about this. We have an election coming up and it is an important issue for the state House and candidates for Congress. Regardless of what you believe in, you have a responsibility to support another woman’s choice.

“This is between her and God and the spirit of the child,” she said.

Fire Thunder said her vision for the clinic would be to consider a young man’s contribution to family planning. Contraception has been a woman’s responsibility, she said, and not a man’s.

“There has to be some real thought given to the role of men in this. Men need to be talking about choices.”

In traditional American Indian cultures, people were responsible for making choices, Fire Thunder said. “I come from women of this nation who have made choices.

“I am challenging the women of America to stand up. This whole issue has been quiet for years. In the past we had this huge women’s movement and it kind of fizzled out. I’m challenging women in America to stand up and be the voice of all women.”