Cine Qua Non, Inc.
Serena and Sunny Clifford on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

‘Young Lakota’ Focuses on a Woman’s Right to Choose, Premieres on PBS

Christina Rose

Twins Sunny and Serena Clifford, Oglala, come face-to-face with their future in the documentary, “Young Lakota,” which airs on PBS's  Independent Lens November 25 at 10 p.m. Filmed on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, it explores reservation life amidst chaos and clarity when three young people seek personal sovereignty and self-preservation during a tumultuous time for women in South Dakota.

The documentary is the centerpiece of the filmmaker’s reproductive justice campaign. From 2006 to 2008, women’s rights were front and center when South Dakota sought to outlaw abortion. Cecelia Fire Thunder, the first woman tribal president in Pine Ridge, moved to establish a women’s clinic on the reservation, and it have included the right to choose.

Fire Thunder was ultimately impeached for her unyielding position that all women deserve to make their own decisions about their personal choices. The film covers her impeachment and the effect it had on the 21-year-old Clifford twins. Their friend Brandon Ferguson, a young father, begins the film as a journalist covering the impeachment, but clearly is at odds with his feelings about abortion and friendships are tested. The impeachment had a direct affect on the lives of all three, who begin to question traditions that are brought to the fore.

Serena Clifford, Sunny Clifford, and Brandon Ferguson. (Cine Qua Non, Inc.)

In a panel discussion following a community screening event in Rapid City, South Dakota, panelists Fire Thunder, Oglala, Sunny Clifford, Oglala, Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt, who co-directed and produced the film and are both from New York City, discussed the importance of the film.

“I stood by what my belief is,” Fire Thunder said about her impeachment. “Lakota women, way before Columbus came, made choices about our lives. In our teachings, women are sacred, that is our Lakota way. I have the gift of thought, the gift of spirit, the gift of heart and all I have to do is make choices for myself.”

Fire Thunder engaged the audience bringing many laughs and nods of agreement, saying, “When we allow people in power, in government, to tell us what we do, it is wrong. No man has a right to tell me as a woman what is right for me.”

Throughout the film, Sunny is at the center of the action. She speaks of the challenges of avoiding pregnancy and having a healthy relationship. Sunny said this film is her encouragement to all young girls who might see it. She hopes the film will “be a film for younger girls to realize they can have control over their lives and their future.”

According to Lipschutz and Rosenblatt, the two filmmakers, legislation quite similar to the proposed bans of 2006 are now resurfacing across the country, making the film all the more relevant today.

Lipshutz laughed when someone from the audience asked them how two white ladies from New York City came to make a film about South Dakota. “We have made a lot of films on reproductive rights and justice,” Lipshutz said. “We did one in Texas and New Hampshire,” which covered different aspects of the topic. “And that brought us to South Dakota.”

Marion Lipschutz, co-director/producer, and Rose Rosenblatt, co-director/producer, received star quilts for their efforts to bring recognition of women’s rights to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. (Christina Rose)

Rosenblatt said they had heard about Fire Thunder, “and we followed the pack.”

Fire Thunder noted the state bill outlawing abortion was defeated because women of all walks of life, from all races and backgrounds, came together. “Leadership is the willingness to take on the tough stuff. No matter what they say and do to you, you have to stay in the battle.”

Fire Thunder said the film is not just about educating girls, but boys and men, too. “Never forget the message when we talk about reproductive justice. Young men are part of the equation, too. How do we engage boys, young men, and grown men about respecting women? That when a woman says no they mean no?”

Aimed at mobilizing groups and individuals, the filmmakers hope to inspire support for reproductive health and justice policies, and that “Young Lakota” builds leadership and coalitions between Native groups, youth-serving organizations, and the reproductive rights and justice movement.

An announcement for the film notes that Young Lakota is making a timely arrival during this year’s 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

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Bev Martin's picture
Bev Martin
Submitted by Bev Martin on
Having lived on the reservation, I acknowledge that unwanted pregnancies are a serious threat to both the mother's future and the tribe's well being. Poverty is the future of children born to single parents. I am old enough to have come full cycle on my stand on abortion. When I was as young as these women, the world was proclaiming that the unborn baby was a clump of cells - no big deal if it had to be killed. Just cells - sort of like an unwanted cancer. Now the world knows that by ten days the 'clump' has a beating heart. I see abortion centers as akin to drug treatment centers: deal with the problem after you chose to make the problem. Women - and men- do have the ultimate choice: absence or carry birth control with them at all times. Unless one is talking about rape, the choice is to prevent the baby until the parents are ready to take care of the child. Rather than focus on abortion center creation, the reservation could be focusing on educating families about the responsibility that comes with the choice to have sex.

Al ,E.'s picture
Al ,E.
Submitted by Al ,E. on
having been stationed on the Air Force Base outside Rapid City for 4 years in the 50's and dated a Native American girl I am aware of not only their rights being abused but the uncalled for discrimination that they all endured. Now once again they are put to the test. I being an American born Jewish person empthise with the situation and as back then I still think it deplorable.

Al ,E.'s picture
Al ,E.
Submitted by Al ,E. on
having been stationed on the Air Force Base outside Rapid City for 4 years in the 50's and dated a Native American girl I am aware of not only their rights being abused but the uncalled for discrimination that they all endured. Now once again they are put to the test. I being an American born Jewish person empathise with the situation

Kurt Van Tassel's picture
Kurt Van Tassel
Submitted by Kurt Van Tassel on
Every female in the world should have the right to decide for themselves whether to give birth or not. No one should have the right or the power to force a female to do anything she does not want to do period.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
What about the father's rights ? Abortion = just killing more Indian babies !

leoti27's picture
Submitted by leoti27 on
native americans are a dying culture why would one want the choice to destroy what has already been destroyed has their not been enough death in the native American cultures and you want to bring more?

Charlene Bearskin's picture
Charlene Bearskin
Submitted by Charlene Bearskin on
Beautiful...wonderful work you two are doing! Many Thanks

jerry coatl's picture
jerry coatl
Submitted by jerry coatl on
I was really connected with the program.It's about time we see and hear of whats going on.we are all humans.