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The Power of Thunder

Cecelia Fire Thunder, president of the South Dakota Ogala Sioux, takes on the state's repressive new abortion ban.
 
 
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Just two weeks after South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds signed the state's extreme abortion ban with no exceptions for rape and incest, Cecelia Fire Thunder, the first woman president of the Oglala Sioux tribe, made national headlines after saying she would personally set up a clinic on her tribe's land in South Dakota to preserve a woman's right to choose. There is currently only one clinic in the entire state of South Dakota that provides abortions, and its status, since the ban, is endangered.

President Fire Thunder's decision to take the lead on this issue is nothing short of remarkable considering the number of challenges on the reservation. Almost half of all Native American women in South Dakota are poor, compared with approximately 10 percent of white women, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research report on the Status of Women in South Dakota. Median annual earnings for women in South Dakota rank last in the nation. Furthermore, the unemployment rate on the reservation is 85 percent and the life expectancy rate is 46 for men and 55 for women.

But President Fire Thunder is a determined woman. Besides announcing plans for the clinic, she has continued to focus on the need to address rape as an issue for South Dakota women, particularly Native American women. One in six American women has been the victim of rape or attempted rape, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey. The average annual rate of rape and sexual assault among American Indians is three and a half times higher than the national average.

Fire Thunder is one of the co-chairs of a new coalition called the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families. The group just announced a grassroots plan to contest the abortion ban on the November ballot. They have until June 19 to collect 16,728 signatures.

AlterNet's Rose Aguilar spoke with President Fire Thunder about the clinic, abortion ban and challenges facing women who live in rural areas.

Rose Aguilar: Tell me about the clinic you're planning to build.

Cecelia Fire Thunder: The proposed clinic would be for all women because right now, if a woman needs an abortion, she needs to go all the way to Sioux Falls. This clinic would go beyond abortion and contraception. We're missing out on teaching our boys and men about what they need to do to avoid pregnancies.

Rose Aguilar: I called the governor's office to find out what the penalty would be for women who have abortions if the law goes into effect, but haven't received a call back. If the law is upheld, will women be able to have legal abortions on your reservation?

Fire Thunder: We don't know. We have five Indian lawyers working on this right now. When we go face to face with the South Dakota lawmakers, we'll be ready.

Aguilar: You've made it a point to talk about rape in your interviews. While the abortion ban has received widespread attention, there's been little talk about how this law would force a girl who'd been raped by a male relative to have his baby.

Fire Thunder: We need to start talking about those issues. Americans should be outraged about the number of women who are raped in this country. We need to also speak out for women in places like Afghanistan and other war-torn areas where rape is happening. This is not new. Rape has always been a part of life. Unfortunately, the world is not always a safe place for women.

Ultimately, this is a much bigger issue than just abortion. The women of America should be outraged that policies and decisions about their bodies are being made by male politicians and clergy. It's time for women to reclaim their bodies.

Women in America have something that women in other parts of the world don't have. Women in this country don't appreciate their right to free speech. Women in America can be the voice of women around the world. This is a call to arms by women in the United States.

Aguilar: And not only are the anti-choicers going after abortion, they're also going after birth control.

Fire Thunder: Women should have access to contraception. No questions asked. Contraception is a solution. Why don't they (politicians) get it?

Aguilar: Do the women on the reservation have access to contraception?

Fire Thunder: We have Indian clinics on the reservation, so birth control is available, but it's not enough. We're going to go ahead with the clinic no matter what. If nothing else, we need to establish a place where women feel comfortable.

Aguilar: How will you fund it?

Fire Thunder: I'm not concerned about that. We'll get a lot of support. If it's meant to be, it'll happen. We pray a lot. We trust that there will be people who support it.

Aguilar: How do these laws directly impact the poor women on the reservation?

Women of color and poor women have always known that regardless of what happens, women with money will have access to abortion. Women with money will have access to contraception. No matter which way you cut it, it's always on the backs of poor women.

An elder on my reservation said, "So they don't want you to have contraception or abortions after rape? Are they going to step up and take care of that baby?"

Aguilar: Do you think the pro-choice movement does enough to reach out to poor women?

Fire Thunder: Yes and no. For the most part, we have to empower ourselves. We're becoming much more politically astute, and we're getting a lot more young people involved. We love to get people riled up.

Aguilar: Tell me about your reservation and the realities women living in rural areas face in this political climate.

Fire Thunder: My reservation is 50 miles by 100 miles long. It's a large rural community of 40,000 people and 60 percent of our people speak our language. Half of our population is under 18.

In a perfect world, if a woman is raped, she will call the police, and the police will take her to the emergency room. The emergency room will have components in place to help this woman, including the morning-after pill to prevent the pregnancy. In rural America, that doesn't happen. Many places in rural America do not know about the morning-after pill.

On the reservation, we have to take a look at the high rates of alcohol and drug use. More often than not, young women who've been raped while under the influence will be blamed for being drunk. If someone is raped, especially out in the rural community, they may not report it. After three days, they've passed the cut-off point for taking the morning-after pill.

How many babies are conceived during the act of violence? We don't know.

Aguilar: Tell me about your background.

Fire Thunder: I was born and raised on the reservation. Then I went to Los Angeles on a relocation program from 1963 to 1976. The program was the Eisenhower administration's solution to the "Indian problem." What they wanted to do was put us in cities and hope we would disappear. During the '70s, Los Angeles had the largest Indian population in the U.S.

I eventually became a nurse and was able to provide for my two children. I returned to the reservation in 1987 and eventually worked for the state health department.

Aguilar: And eventually became the first woman president of your tribe.

Fire Thunder: Yes, it says a lot about my tribe. My job is to look after 2.7 million acres of land. My job is to take care of the water. My responsibilities are not only about the two-legged, but the four-legged. I have to make sure we have an infrastructure in place, that our educational systems are working, that we have healthcare and that our people have enough food to eat.

Right in my own backyard, I have great possibilities. We're very patriotic on my reservation, however, it's time to get out of Iraq. We need to let people make their own decisions about their future. As a woman and a mother, I personally don't want any more women to cry.

Aguilar: Are many men from the reservation in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Fire Thunder: You bet. We have hundreds of guys over there, and they volunteer to go. We just had a big funeral here last month. It was our first casualty.

Aguilar: How old was he?

Fire Thunder: He was 22. So many of our resources have been taken away from us to support that war. There's a huge groundswell of Americans that say enough is enough. It's time to get out of there.

Aguilar: What are your plans from here?

Fire Thunder: I'll continue pushing the envelope and exerting our sovereignty.

A long time ago, we had medicines that were available to terminate a pregnancy. Women like my grandmother were medicine women, and they had it in their possession. So you look at every culture in the world, and there were ways we took care of ourselves. You didn't have people passing laws to control a woman's body.

As a woman, it's my job to support women. It's my job to support my sisters.

Rose Aguilar is a San Francisco-based journalist who recently returned from a six-month road trip through the so-called " red states ." She is writing a book about her journey.