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Women join together in South Dakota

PIERRE, S.D. - The 2006 anti-abortion ban in South Dakota, defeated by the voters, energized a women's movement that has grown - and now American Indian women have organized as well.

American Indian women are entering the political arena in larger numbers than ever before because of the statewide women's issues.

The women's movement encouraged 10 American Indian women to stand up and run for state or county offices; and with the American Indian men who ran, the number of Native candidates was the largest in recent history.

American Indian women are joining the newly formed Indigenous Women's Political Caucus in larger numbers than expected. The IWPC was formed out of a need to protect Native women's sovereignty and issues, according to Charon Asetoyer, executive director of the Native American Women's Resource Center and one of the caucus' organizers.

The IWPC officially entered the political arena with a public announcement on Feb. 1, the day designated as ''Women 4 Women Day'' at the state Capitol.

It will take a collective of all women, regardless of their American Indian or non-Indian heritage, to fight for rights and combat oppression, Asetoyer said: ''These are our issues too we just may look at them through a different lens, and we need to lock arms and share, we need to support you and you need to support us in this very important legislative process.''

Present at the press conference for IWPC were a large number of non-Indian women representing Women 4 Women who overwhelmingly agreed with forming a unified front against anti-women and anti-family legislation.

It didn't take the indigenous women's caucus long to hit the ground running by attacking the new anti-abortion attempts and creating an atmosphere that would bring the state's women's groups together.

State Sen. Theresa Two Bulls, Oglala, representing Pine Ridge, encouraged all women to attend the legislative sessions and show a presence in the galleries of each legislative chamber and attend hearings and provide testimony.

''The precedent has already been set for the Native women of South Dakota, and now it's time we stood up with a strong voice and started addressing these issues as one. Nothing is impossible; I have found that out, that is why I am sitting here today,'' Two Bulls said.

''One of our purposes is to promote positive change and fair law-making; that's all we want is to be treated fair and just,'' she said.

The IWPC gathering not only set a precedent with an group that will fight for just legislation for American Indians, the meeting set a precedent that will bring all women together.

A woman from the Women 4 Women group reminded everyone that women comprise only 16 percent of the state Legislature, while the state population is 51 percent women. ''That's [a] terrible imbalance. Make this groundswell really change the face of politics in South Dakota. We care about your issues; your issues are our issues too,'' she said to IWPC members.

Many of the women present were also members of Democracy in Action, a group of women from the western part of the state, and of the South Dakota Advocacy Network for Women, from the eastern part of the state.

''As I look around I see this groundswell of women, not only here but around the world. It is the women that are going to save this planet. We've got to get together in this state; there are too many men in the Legislature,'' an unidentified woman said.

Not all women speak with one voice in the state. At the introduction of the anti-abortion

measures, some women present during the introduction of the bills said they supported the former bill that outlawed all abortions regardless of incest or rape. Some women in the legislative bodies were also listed as sponsors of last year's bill that passed, but was turned down by the public.

The South Dakota Legislature passed the most stringent of anti-abortion bills in the country in 2006, only to have the law turned down by the state's voters. More anti-abortion legislation is on the table, with more such bills introduced in the 2007 session, and a large number of women are working to defeat that and other bills that adversely impact women.

Cecelia Fire Thunder, former Oglala Sioux Tribe president and a founding member of IWPC, asked for a restraining order against any discussion on abortion by the state Legislature.

''It was a slap in the face to the voting public of the state of South Dakota when the people spoke and this body turned around and did this again,'' Fire Thunder said.

The state Legislature is not the main focus of IWPC; the tribal governments will also be included. Helen Gilbert, Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe and a councilman, asked the caucus to speak to her tribal council.

Asetoyer said the group will contact all tribal governments in the state and explain the purpose of the caucus.

Politics has also revived an alliance between ranchers and American Indians in a most unlikely location: Meade County, home to the sacred mountain, Bear Butte. Anne White Hat, Sicangu Lakota from Rosebud, was an unsuccessful candidate for Meade County commissioner.

White Hat campaigned to stop liquor sales near Bear Butte and received support from area ranchers, she said. Liquor at Bear Butte was up for discussion in the Legislature, but was defeated in committee for the second year in a row.

''I'm really glad that folks come out and support us and hear the indigenous women's voice ... [this is] a movement that we are going to build and one that is creating a lot of strength just by being here today,'' White Hat said.