Fire Thunder Confirms Plans For Clinic
PINE RIDGE, S.D. ñ It could be considered ironic that the South Dakota Legislature became the catalyst that thrust a tribal president onto center stage on a national level. The passage of a bill in March that limits a womanís right to choose ñ even in the case of incest or rape ñ to have an abortion angered Oglala Sioux Tribal President Cecilia Fire Thunder, as it did many people. The nearly total ban on abortion makes an exception only if the motherís life is in danger. Fire Thunder received national press when she mentioned the development of a womenís clinic on a reservation. That clinic is a go and will be called Sacred Choices Clinic. Locally, Fire Thunder has escaped two attempts at impeachment over a $38 million loan she brokered with the Mdewakanton Shakopee Sioux Tribe in Minnesota, a successful gaming tribe, to pay off debts and to construct a new hotel and a casino that will replace the current casino on the Pine Ridge Reservation. When Fire Thunder ran for election in 2004, her promise was ìaccountabilityî: financial accountability. The Oglala Sioux Tribe was in financial trouble and listed as a financial high risk. When Fire Thunder talks about her term in office, she first directs attention to the progress made with tribal financial accountability, and the fact that almost all of the high-risk areas have been addressed. ìI really like my job. Iím really excited because we were put on ëhigh riskí in 2000 and all that means is we werenít managing our money very well, and the auditors had a lot of questions. Rural water was the first to go off ëhigh risk,íî she said. Fire Thunder said she wants people to understand that audits had to reach back to 1997 through 1999. In 1999, tribal offices were taken over by a group of grass-roots tribal members and a tornado hit the town of Oglala. ìThere were tribal records all over the place. We knew if we could get the 1999 audit in good shape, the years after would be much better. Everything after that would be uphill,î she said. With a portion of the $38 million loan, five people were hired to sort through financial records. ìThe reason we wanted them in order was the question of the need for substantiation that the money was spent the way it was supposed to. The only way to do that was scut work. ìWe were able to find the money and show it was spent the way it was supposed to; that was our intent,î Fire Thunder said. In addition to the loan, with the records, Fire Thunder was able to ask the IHS and Bureau of Reclamation to forgive portions of some loans to the tribe. ìWe are all excited at the tribal office because we are chipping away at this. We hope to be off ëhigh riskí by August,î she said. ìAt the very beginning of my administration it seemed like there was no hole at the end of the tunnel; and now we are seeing light. This is a team effort ñ and I just want to say [that] the finance committee, the treasurer and my office ñ everyoneís been cooperating and working together to take care of this,î Fire Thunder said.
The springboard to national attention
The Sacred Choices Clinic project is proceeding. A board of directors has been chosen and funds are coming in. ìIím always an advocate for women, itís all about women. To me, when I heard that [Gov. Mike Rounds] signed the bill including rape and incest, I was going, ëWait a minute, we know that rape and incest occur ñ how do we allow white men to tell me what to do with my little brown body?í ìIt was just intuitive as a woman to speak up. I shook the tree of denial on the Pine Ridge Reservation and now everyone is talking about it. Did you notice that itís mostly men criticizing what Iíve been doing?î She said Pine Ridge has a population of beautiful young women who have no education or an awareness of making choices about their bodies. ìThis is a good opportunity to do that.î In all of her contacts with the press or public, she never mentioned the ìA word,î as she calls it. ìIt is very emotional,î she said. ìItís a hard enough decision to make, and how many women are strong enough to make that decision and stick by it? So when a woman makes up her mind, she doesnít need someone to undermine her decision. Iím just here to love you and hold your hand and support whatever decision you make,î she said. ìMy grandmother and other Lakota women would talk about when everyone remembers a woman who had the medicine to terminate a pregnancy. ìIn my culture we have a goddess, the White Buffalo Calf Woman. Itís a feminine power and thatís who I am. I need to honor the feminine power ñ so the goddess is making me do this,î she said with a laugh.
Great Plains leadership Not only has Fire Thunder hit the national scene with fervor: sheís had an impact on the tribal collective in the Plains. ìI believe in the power of the collective. When in the room it is filled with power and itís awesome. Together we can achieve great things; alone we can barely trudge along. ìIn actual reality I keep pushing the collective; sometimes Iím just exhausted, there is so much on my plate, but I show up and when Iím at meetings there is so much unity. ìThe power of this region is awesome Ö I can remember when we were one of the most powerful regions; now letís quit rolling over and playing dead,î she said. Fire Thunder is one of the leaders advocating for the creation of a South Dakota Indian Gaming Association to better negotiate compacts and promote gaming. Eight of the nine tribes in the state have casinos, and Rounds will not let the topic of compacts or expansion be part of any agenda. ìHe is willing to talk to us about other economic development issues; however, he will not talk to us about the gaming compacts,î she said. Fire Thunder said she spoke to the governor recently and said that he was angry about tribal leaders telling the press that he wouldnít meet with them to discuss gaming. She said the Oglala Nation and others will begin market research to determine the feasibility of Class II gaming devices until such time as the governor will negotiate. ìIíve worked to create change, I always tried to change policy. ìI think Iíve got my feet on the ground. I pray to protect me from how easy it is to get sucked into the power and abuse it. Iím careful not to abuse it and hurt anybody,î she said. Fire Thunder added that she has prepared for this role all her life. Glamour magazine will print a feature on Fire Thunder in the future. ìI will be in every beauty salon in the country,î she said.