Honoring Women: Dorothy Firecloud
DEVILS TOWER, Wyo. ñ Dorothy Firecloud is the first American Indian woman to become the superintendent at the nationís first-ever national monument, Devils Tower. The path she took to get there was not easy, but does hold great hope for others who have similar backgrounds and help. Firecloud, Lakota, grew up on a near-destitute location in White River, S.D., on the Rosebud Reservation, where young people still see little hope for a future. She lived with her grandparents in a one-room house with no electricity and no running water until age 9. She lost her mother in an automobile accident, after which she was shuffled from one family to another by the social services system. She and her sister spent some time at St. Francis Mission School on the Rosebud Reservation, where they were treated well by one of the nuns and a social worker. Firecloud then was placed with a good and caring Rosebud family. She had good Lakota teachers: her grandparents. ìI remember lying in the living room [of her grandparentís home], a kerosene lamp for light, and I listened to the elders talk. It was the most comfortable time of my life,î she said. ìMy grandmother told me stories of the spirits; it was a way of keeping us under control.î It may have been the spirits that guided her through life. One of her lifeís lucky times, she said, occurred when she and some young people drove to Minneapolis; her friends left her there, alone. She then met up with a woman who she now calls mother: a probation officer named Melissa Tappio whose family came from Pine Ridge. Tappio still plays an important role in her life. Firecloud attended a Bemidji, Minn., community college and watched as her friend, who became her sister, attended law school in Minneapolis. Tappio is foster mother to both. She attended school in Albuquerque and worked in a law firm that specialized in Indian law and water rights. She said that helped her get interested in law. ìI thought if non-Indians can do it, so can I.î She then earned a law degree from the University of New Mexico and passed that stateís bar exam. ìI am the first Indian woman attorney from White River,î she said. Firecloud worked for the BIA as a water rights specialist and was detailed three times to Washington, D.C., in the office of Indian affairs. She then moved over to the National Forest Service and became a tribal liaison for water rights. She also served with an all-womenís forest service group at the Tlingit community of Hoonah in Alaska, and then was appointed to as deputy supervisor of the Black Hills National Forest. ìI made the comment that I wanted to go the Black Hills, and that opportunity became available.î She said mentors continued to open doors for her and offer her opportunities, and she took advantage. She served as deputy of the Black Hills National Forest for eight months before she was appointed superintendent at Devils Tower, which is part of the National Park Service. Moving from one agency to another with a promotion to the position of superintendent is very rare, she said. Firecloud said she follows the Lakota beliefs. She participates in sweats and is also a pipe carrier. A pipe that was given to her at age 25, on the day she quit alcohol, has sustained her non-drinking life. She said her goal is to learn the Lakota language. Her grandparents spoke Lakota at home, but she never continued the practice. Firecloud has lived in Arizona with the Zuni; in Alaska; in Washington, D.C.; in Albuquerque; and now again in South Dakota. Her youngest son, Sean, has made the journey with her. ìSean thinks he is the deputy superintendent [at Devils Tower],î Firecloud said. ìI tell kids they are lucky to be Indian. There is a connection to the Earth and Indian people feel it. ìI love being Indian.î Firecloud wants to mentor youth much as she was mentored. She plans to teach youth from the various reservations to meet visitors at the monument and talk about their culture. Her plans, she said, are to erect a tipi at the monument and give youth a chance to interact with people from all over the world. Firecloudís office, located within sight of the tower, is surrounded by ponderosa pine and other flora in a biodiverse area that includes plenty of wildlife. Much of the wildlife can be seen strolling past her office window. ìIt is extra-special that I am here. I am at one of the most beautiful sites in the world, and I get paid for it,î she said. Firecloud is trusted with protecting a site that is sacred to many of the tribes that call the northern Plains their homelands.