Keep Your Laws Off Our Bodies
By Keith McCrea
The South Dakota Plains seems an unlikely place for an earthquake, figurative or literal. But this year, South Dakota, and specifically the southern central region that includes the Oglala Lakota Nation, is situated on one of American politics’ most unstable fault lines—the debate on abortion. And the tremors have destabilized South Dakota’s usually staid GOP politics and the internal government of this small Native American nation.
The Oglala Lakota Nation covers about 2,000,000 acres in a state where the state government recently decided that no incest survivor or rape victim can get an abortion. Cecilia Fire Thunder, the recently impeached president of the Oglala Lakota and the first woman to lead the tribe, says she is “incensed ... that a body made up of mostly white males would make such a stupid law against women.”
So she fought back, advocating for the creation of a reproductive-health clinic “within the boundaries of the Pine Ridge Reservation, where the State of South Dakota has absolutely no jurisdiction.” The women’s health clinic Fire Thunder envisions would serve women of diverse identities: “This is about whites and Indians working together,” she said. “Our intent is to provide services to women, not women of one race.” This action put President Fire Thunder on a collision course with her conservative opponents at Pine Ridge and with an issue that many white GOP voters care passionately about: Abortion.
Lots of males, white and otherwise, are weighing in on her decision. On June 29, Fire Thunder was impeached by the Oglala Tribal Council, which acted on a motion by tribal councilmen Will Peters and Garfield Steele. The Tribal Council’s stated reason for Fire Thunder’s impeachment is that she raised money for the proposed clinic without notifying the Council, according to UPI’s Jack E. Wilkinson. Council member Will Peters, who filed the complaint against Fire Thunder, insisted that “the Lakota people were adamantly opposed to abortion on our homeland.” Fire Thunder has promised to challenge the decision.
One notable white male, South Dakota governor Mike Rounds, is also chagrined by Fire Thunder’s actions. Rounds, a right-wing Catholic who sought to end a five-year drought on the Great Plains by proclaiming a statewide day of prayer for rain (no, really … ), in March 2006 signed the state bill banning abortion.
It is hard to imagine two more different elected officials than Governor Rounds and President Fire Thunder. Rounds, a real-estate and insurance exec and the son of an oil lobbyist, has worked diligently up the ranks of the lily-white South Dakota GOP. Cecelia Fire Thunder is a former nurse and caregiver who was elected as president in 2004 and who this year co-chaired the successful efforts of the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families to collect 16,000 signatures to put South Dakota’s restrictive abortion law before voters this November. A long-time advocate for the Lakota language who has medicine women in her family, she founded an organization called Sacred Circle to fight domestic violence at a time when sexual assault against women in Native American communities was three times as common as in white communities, according to the 2002 Indian Health Service report “Family Violence and American Indians/Alaskan Natives.”
South Dakota, where nearly one in ten voters is Native American, is home to nine native nations, all of which have seen rough justice at the hands of the U.S. government. But, as has often been the case with clashes between the U.S. federal government and Native Americans, this fight is about more than just the actions of a tribe in some sparsely populated corner of South Dakota. While reactionary right-wing governments throughout the United States are using the separation of powers to restrict access to reproductive-health services and to fund a dizzying array of troubling faith-based initiatives, Cecelia Fire Thunder and her supporters are testing whether local communities can truly live by their own values or whether the new federalism is just a bullshit smokescreen to placate GOP crackpots.
Fire Thunder has been a controversial figure since coming from behind in an October primary to narrowly defeat Hollywood actor and Native American activist Russell Means in November 2004. That election was challenged in court and not resolved until March 2005. That June, she faced a suspension attempt and calls to step down after she transferred the management of the tribe’s troubled Head Start program to the Oglala Lakota College System. The one place she’s never lost, however, is at the ballot box. This fall, thanks to her efforts with the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, all of South Dakota – not just GOP reactionaries and her conservative tribal enemies – will decide on the future of women’s health in the Oglala Nation and throughout the state.
“No more will men in positions of power tell us what to do with our bodies,” Fire Thunder told Clamor from her office in Pine Ridge, SD, in the heady days before impeachment proceedings began. “That is a gift from the Creator. Women in America have the greatest responsibility because we live a country that we call a free country. We need to show women in every state of the union and around the world. American women have a responsibility to be a voice for freedom to the whole world. No one has a right to tell a woman who’s been raped and who’s pregnant because of violence what to do.”
Regardless of the outcome, however, Cecelia Fire Thunder’s efforts, in a state that has voted to effectively ban abortion, to provide reproductive-health services in an area underserved by the federal Indian Health Service — “the very baby steps of doing something absolutely wonderful” — remind us that it’s possible to elect leaders who are willing to fight to provide progressive leadership in a difficult and trying time. “We still live in a constitutional democracy, not the dark ages,” Fire Thunder says, even if that is sometimes hard to remember.
Keith McCrea has been a critic and editor for Clamor magazine since February 2003. He may be contacted at email@example.com or just by stopping by his apartment. It’s cool.