Pine Ridge Leader Faces Battle Over Abortion Ban
Cecelia Fire Thunder, the first woman elected president of the Oglala Sioux Nation, faces impeachment Thursday because of her plan to open an abortion clinic on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the southwest corner of South Dakota.
A year and a half ago, Fire Thunder, a 59-year-old nurse, swept into office, beating famed American Indian Movement leader Russell Means, whose arguments against her included that she is a woman.
Last spring South Dakota's Governor Mike Rounds signed into law the most sweeping abortion ban in the nation, which permitted abortion only to save the life of a woman. Only last week pro-choice advocates learned they'd collected enough signatures to put the ban on the November ballot, thus halting a July 1 start date.
"I got really angry about a bunch of white guys making decisions about my body," Fire Thunder said in an interview last week.
Yet in the days when the ban seemed imminent, Fire Thunder told a newspaper columnist of her plan to open a clinic on the reservation, which operates under U.S. federal law rather than state law.
The news spread like wild fire over the Internet -- those journalists who couldn't reach Fire Thunder relied on other reports and even bloggers for information -- about the president who vowed to open an abortion clinic. Little attention was paid to the tribal government, which had grave doubts about Fire Thunder's pro-choice efforts.
Fire Thunder said that a group of Oglala women had been talking for some time about opening a reproductive health clinic where abortion and other health services could be available locally.
From Pine Ridge, it's a 300-mile drive across South Dakota to Sioux Falls and the nearest abortion clinic. After the ban became law, Fire Thunder realized that the clinic could operate independently of South Dakota laws on the reservation and serve all women.
Yet she didn't anticipate the strength of the anti-abortion sentiment on the reservation. Members of Reservation churches marched against her; others called for her ouster and for an abortion ban as strict as the state's.
"She put her presidency in jeopardy because she is so committed to helping Native American women," said Charon Asetoyer, director of the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center, a nonprofit organization located on Yankton Sioux Reservation.
Raucous Tribal Politics
In the raucous world of Oglala Sioux politics it's not unusual for tribal councils to reprimand presidents, who seem to diverge too far from the council's interests, with suspension and impeachment.
Still, Fire Thunder's year and a half in office has been one for the record books. She's been suspended three times and threatened with impeachment twice. Even her critics say the earlier attacks on her presidency were aimed at management problems that predated Fire Thunder's administration.
The underlying fact of life in Shannon County, which is dominated by the Pine Ridge Reservation, is economic poverty. The county is consistently ranked each decade by the U.S. Census as the poorest in the nation, while the reservation endures 85 percent unemployment. "You can't control poverty," Fire Thunder said, "until you can control population."
Legal abortion, Fire Thunder said, is particularly important for Native American women, who lack access to birth control, who tend to live in poverty and who face epidemic sexual violence.
Native American women are raped three times more often than women of all other races in the United States, according to 1999 U.S. Department of Justice data.
Abortion, Fire Thunder said, is part of the aboriginal right of tribal women throughout North America. Until the advent of missionaries and their boarding schools a century ago, the knowledge of terminating pregnancies, both physically and spiritually, was passed down through women's societies.
"You would talk to that spirit," Fire Thunder said of the fetus. "You would say, 'I can't take care of you right now. Please, go back.'"
Smoke Screen Charges
Will Peters, an Oglala councilmember who is one of Fire Thunder's most vocal critics, said she wasn't talking about poverty and violence against women when she started advocating for abortion. He calls her use of these topics a "smoke screen" to cover up her stand.
"If this was her original intention it should have been brought with all its intensity to the table, instead of now trying to lay a guilt trip on everyone for not dealing with it," Peters said in a telephone interview last week.
The council, grown weary of Fire Thunder's pro-choice stands in the media, grew angry as mail flooded the tribal offices and the story continued to circulate on the Internet. Mail flooded the tribal office, said Emma Featherman-Sam, who works in the tribe's transportation office.
The council accused Fire Thunder of soliciting money for an abortion clinic without getting their permission. Fire Thunder countered that the clinic was always intended to be privately run, not a tribal enterprise. Featherman-Sam, who is a board member for the Sacred Choices Wellness Center -- the name of the proposed clinic incorporated earlier this month -- doesn't know how much money was received. But she said it will take a large-scale campaign to raise the dollars necessary to build on the rural reservation.
By May 25 the rumblings about Fire Thunder's stand against the ban came to a head. Two hundred tribal members filed into the council meeting to call for Fire Thunder's ouster. A reservation newspaper captured the mood with a headline: "Wilma Mankiller, Cecelia Babykiller." Fire Thunder was absent, she said, because of a medical appointment. Council Passes a New Ban
The council proceeded without her. First an abortion ban -- clearly aimed at the Sacred Choices center -- was unanimously passed. It contains a provision to banish from the reservation anyone who considers getting an abortion or helps someone else obtain one.
Then the council turned to Fire Thunder. In a 14-to-1 vote, the council of 18, mostly men, suspended her, pending an impeachment hearing. Peters, as reported by the newspaper Indian Country Today, thanked those who may have been conceived as a result of rape for attending the meeting. Later, in an interview for Women's eNews, he called for a forum where tribal members could discuss the merits of abortion. But Asetoyer said such a public debate is in complete opposition to the traditional practice of tribal women.
"These matters are not up for scrutiny by our male counterparts," she said. "This is a discussion for women to have in privacy of other women. Whoever calls for public debates has been totally converted to a colonial way of thinking."
At Pine Ridge, South Dakota's abortion ban is background noise to the urgent debate about Fire Thunder's impeachment hearing on Thursday. The Sacred Choices center is inching forward, but it could take months or years to open, and then may be hamstrung by the tribe's ban. Fire Thunder is taking the long view. The important thing now, she said, is that tribal families are talking about the issues. And women are delving more deeply than they have since missionaries filled the reservation with tidy, little churches into their tribe's reproductive health knowledge.
"We're in the middle a quiet revolution in Pine Ridge," Fire Thunder said. "And it's awful painful."