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Women’s History Month

Native women fight to reclaim equality

Published Mar 31, 2010 5:41 PM

The National Museum of the American Indian celebrated Women’s History Month by paying tribute to the first woman to become president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. Cecelia Fire Thunder lives on the Pine Ridge reservation and was in New York to attend the United Nations Conference on the Status of Women.

Now the former president, she recalled how, when elected in 2004, she was the target of much opposition and political attacks from the men in the tribe, who tried to impeach her. In December 2005, though, the Tribal Council voted to dismiss the impeachment ruling and she was reinstated. She also received support from tribal leaders throughout the country.

Fire Thunder greeted the audience in her native tongue. She told of growing up in a family and clan that always insisted on practicing and maintaining the language, values and traditions of their people.

“The arrival of the Europeans to this land was the beginning of the end of Native people’s way of life and the destruction of their culture,” she stated. Born in 1946, she learned English in a Christian boarding school, as did other children of her generation. “They insisted on converting Native peoples to Christianity, often forcefully, which resulted in changing the structure of the Native family and community. History, as written by the white man, will not tell of such tragedies,” she added.

Originally, the Pine Ridge territory consisted of 3 million acres. But the U.S. government gave much of the land to religious groups, who then established missionary schools as a way of “controlling” Indians through treaties, she said.

From that time on, the role of Lakota women began changing, as did male/female relationships, said Fire Thunder. Before then, women were considered sacred and there was equality between men and women. Women had freedom then, and knew their history, who they were and where they came from. She spoke of the everyday kindness and goodness of Lakota women.

On reservations, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs made life difficult for Indigenous people from the very beginning. So in 1963 her family moved to Los Angeles, as there were no social services on the Lakota reservation. Within 10 years hundreds of Native people relocated to East Los Angeles and settled in the Mexican community.

In the 1970s, Fire Thunder joined other Native women in starting a free clinic for struggling people in the city of Compton who were without health care. After doing much research on “learning how to speak the language of white men in government,” she said, she started lobbying and writing grants.

Immersed in communities of Mexican, Black and Asian women, she worked with them to obtain government support for poor women and children. In the late 1980s she helped to found the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and established clinics. She also helped to found National Wellness Institutes in Oklahoma, Nevada, Arizona and South Dakota.

When she returned to her reservation in Pine Ridge, she found things had significantly changed in male/female relationships and there was a high rate of domestic violence, alcoholism, homicide, child abuse, increased high school dropout rates and even suicide.

She organized 300 women and in 1989 they were the first reservation to pass the Mandatory Arrest Ordinance, which detained men for 72 hours for domestic violence.

Another of her accomplishments centered on a woman’s right to determine what she can do with her body. When the Catholic governor of South Dakota banned abortions, she challenged him and threatened to open up an abortion clinic. Most of her opposition, she said, came from white “right-to-life” men who even physically threatened her.

The power of Lakota women, she said, is strengthened by coming together as a clan. The role of Native women in tribal and state governments is increasing; most voters are women, as are most educators, medical professionals and administrators. All segments of society, though, must make commitments to have Native voices heard regarding Native people’s sovereignty and human rights, she added.

Today, Cecelia Fire Thunder’s message to women everywhere is to “stand by what you believe, take risks, listen to the spirits and ancestors, and don’t be afraid to fight back.” The goal of women, she stated, is to “knock down barriers that limit the roles of women as tribal and community leaders, as well as in the larger society.” She also mentioned she gained strength and energy from the experiences of all people of color who are survivors of injustice and inequality.