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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.

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, and Jessica Danforth, Mohawk, executive director the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, 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.”

Danforth noted the importance of the ongoing battle for reproductive justice, and said too many women “don’t have a choice to begin with, never mind having a right.” Danforth said that in 2006 and 2008, South Dakota was a model for anti-abortionists around the country. “We had to be mobilized,” Danforth said.

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.”

Danforth noted an unexpected bonus of the film. “As I watched the film in the editing process, it was one of the first times in my life that I saw a film where I was reflected as a young Native woman. I never get to watch TV and be like, ‘Oh! That’s my story.’ In this film, they are talking about sex, talking about bodies, but most important they are doing something about it! Our story isn’t always about being victims. We are about being agents of change, and we have always been agents of change.”

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.”

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.