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Women set up network to support their issues

LAKE ANDES, S.D. - With the recent formation of a political caucus, women are taking an active stand on political issues that directly affect their lives.

The Indigenous Women's Political Caucus will network with South Dakota's American Indian women to strategize and strengthen their political voices on state legislative measures.

The group is a caucus, not a nonprofit organization, political lobby or political action committee. It is made up of individual women who will network through the Internet and meetings to educate themselves about the issues and develop strategies for action on proposed legislation.

''Most women are trying to make decisions for themselves and they shouldn't be told how to make those intimate decisions. Most have made good decisions,'' said Charon Asetoyer, spokesman for the caucus.

The 2006 South Dakota Legislature passed the country's strongest anti-abortion bill that excluded consideration for the life of the woman and cases of incest and rape. That bill was signed by the governor, but a ballot measure to approve the bill that was presented during the 2006 November general election was overturned by the voters.

Another abortion ban bill will be introduced to the Legislature soon that will exclude rape, incest and the life of the mother. Women who opposed last year's bill also plan to oppose this new abortion ban.

''The new bills are another attempt by the right wing to try and assert their control over the general population, and women specifically, to try to control our decision-making - and that is something they are not going to be successful at doing.

''There are too many women across the state saying, 'Wait just a minute,''' Asetoyer said.

''When are our legislators going to stop trying to spend the taxpayers' money by introducing bill that are unconstitutional? I can think of better areas to spend the money.''

For the past 15 years, American Indians have been getting more involved in the political process outside their tribal government. The state of Montana has a record number of American Indian legislators, with 11; South Dakota has had as many as four, but in 2007 there are three. However, last year 10 American Indian women ran for state office.

''That's a combination of wanting to become politically active and protect your right to self-determination,'' Asetoyer said.

Work that has taken place in the communities over the past decade has increased the number of people behind the scenes of the political process and has affected the election of American Indians to school boards, county commissions and other county offices.

''We really need to have a place where we can come together and talk among ourselves and examine the impact that some of these bills have if they are successful,'' Asetoyer said.

The women who participate in the IWPC will network through the Internet, notify each other about legislative issues and decide who will attend hearings to testify or contact legislators.

Indigenous women have been invited in the past to attend legislative sessions as part of another organization, but have never had a group of their own.

''We have never had our own place as indigenous women to be able to talk among ourselves to make some of these kinds of decisions. This is the beginning of this political organizing and sharing of ideas that will take place indefinitely,'' Asetoyer said.

The caucus will act as an additional forum in which to collect and discuss ideas while women continue to be part of other organizations. There has never been a forum where legislation or other issues that affect women could be discussed until the IWPC was formed, she said.

''It [the caucus] came out of a lack of having our own space; and this way we have a collective voice, which is more powerful,'' Asetoyer said.

Asetoyer said her aspirations for the caucus would be that in the first year possibly 25 women would sign up; but as of press time, without having come out publicly, 65 women have signed onto the caucus.

''The first year is surpassing our expectations. This tells us that indigenous women are active in communities and want to be active statewide,'' Asetoyer said.

''Indigenous women have, throughout history, had different kinds of caucuses and circles where they have met to discuss the business of women. If these gentlemen are of a traditional nature and understand this they are going to respect it; whether they agree with our position or not, they will respect our right to meet,'' she said.

Cecelia Fire Thunder, former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, is a founding member of the IWPC. She was removed from office in 2006 because of her stance that favored a women's clinic on Pine Ridge. During her impeachment proceedings, many statements about the role of women were made that do not support a woman's right to choose for herself.

''We, as the Indigenous Women's Political Caucus, are ready and willing to accept a very important role to help make changes to ensure a better life for out peoples,'' said state Sen. Theresa Two Bulls, D-Pine Ridge.