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Fire Thunder Impeachment and the Rights of Women

I begin to realize more and more how out of step I am with the majority of Native Americans. The thin veneer of Native American activist, liberal, or educated Indigenous folk, like myself, have done much to promote the idea of an enlightened Indigenous tradition that was lost to U.S. imperialism. But now, faced with the impeachment of the Oglala Sioux Tribal President Cecelia Fire Thunder in South Dakota for doing nothing more than proposing a Planned Parenthood clinic on her own land calls into question the assumptions that I have long held about my own people.

President Fire Thunder stood up for a woman’s right to choose under the flag of tribal sovereignty in opposition to the state of South Dakota's new anti-abortion law, which outlaws abortion even in the case of rape or incest. Tribal sovereignty as it exists now under U.S. constitutional law arises out of an 1831 Supreme Court ruling that determined the legal status of tribes to be “domestic dependent nations.” It laid the precedent that states, occupying a lower tier than tribes could not exert jurisdiction over these “domestic dependent nations."  The federal government alone enjoys this power.

In addition to impeaching the president, the Oglala Tribal council went one step further than the state of South Dakota -- not only making abortion illegal, but they made seeking an abortion or helping someone find an abortion punishable by banishment from the reservation. So, if a young woman is a victim of incest or rape and seeks help from another woman to find an abortion clinic, she and her friend would be banished. Meanwhile, the tribal council resists efforts to deal as stringently with the issue of rape, incest, and violence against women, so the men who perpetuate rape are not similarly punished.

When I say “my own people," I must clarify that I am not Oglala Lakota, but a Navajo tribal member and my father is Yankton Dakota Sioux. My father's tribe is a member of what was once called in history books as The Great Sioux Nation, which included the Tetons as well, of which, the Oglala are a subgroup. And I know, my dad's tribe located some 200 miles across the state of South Dakota are not so different from their cousins west of the Missouri River in cultural ideas and perceptions.

In the parlance of my mother's people I am "born for the Yankton Dakota," however, as we are matrilineal, I am considered to be fully a member of my mother's clan and people. Boys are considered only half-members, and traditionally, would grow up to live with their wife’s people and their children would be of her clan. The Sioux or Lakota/Dakota have always been more egalitarian in their approach to lineages. Living equally with one side or the other. Grandparents often followed their children and grandchildren and were called “child followers."  Like grandparents in any community, they enjoyed gushing about their little ones and not wanting to be parted from them followed them on long "Indian visits" from October until April to the in-law's encampment. Today, the United States government insists that parents from different tribes, like mine, can only enroll their children in one tribe. So my parents, after much soul-searching, chose to enroll my sisters and me in the Navajo tribe.

Despite the Federal designation, I have always felt a great affinity to my Yankton side. The writings of great-great aunt Ella Deloria were a revelation to me about what society could be and mean to the individual. She was fluent in all three dialects of Lakota/Dakota/Nakota (abbreviated LDN). My great-aunt interviewed elders in the early 20th century on LDN reservations in Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. She recorded their recollections of traditional culture in their own words and then translated them verbatim into English and then did a second translation retaining the idiomatic flavor. Her work has served as a solid foundation for future cultural scholars.

In college, her books were taught in my Native American studies courses. For my senior thesis, I sought out unpublished manuscripts held in collections at the University of South Dakota and the Southwest Museum of the American Indian in Los Angeles and the Dakota Indian Foundation in Chamberlain, South Dakota. My thesis was, quite naturally, on Yankton womanhood, and I made note of everything that would help me understand the role of women in Dakota society. I learned things about my culture that were no longer being taught. Later, when I participated in Lakota ceremonies, I duly noticed the differences, particularly in the role women played. Some of the changes were progressive, others painfully regressive.

I found that many of the leaders today of the Wiwang Wacipi, or Sundance as it is called in English, were not Lakota. They had become active in Lakota ceremonies after stints in prison or after hard-living had brought them to this way of life in order to forge a more emotionally honest and stable lifestyle. To be honest, some Lakota men and men of other tribes seemed to derive a lot of personal gain from participating. Not so much monetarily, but in personal power over followers and positions of prestige within their spiritual groups. It is somewhat similar to the guru position enjoyed by some traditional spiritual practitioners in India with similar New Age followers. The lack of knowledge of historical Lakota cultural structure meant that a lot of misinformation was spread and foisted upon these followers who were willing to put up with a lot to have an authentic Native American experience.

I found myself challenging these misconceptions with personal family stories and research. I was shocked that generally progressive feminist women were allowing themselves to be bullied by “tradition” into regressive roles. None of the participants had ever read any of my great-aunt’s writings. Although, some wicasa wakan (holy men) told me they had read and been inspired by the writings of her nephew Vine Deloria, Jr. Particularly, God Is Red: A Native View of Religion and Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto.

I know many women in different movements have encountered this experience. They join a movement and find themselves, despite their education and intellect being expected to make the coffee and clean the dishes while male leaders sit around and hold councils and reenact the old days. The modern feminist movement was born of this experience in the Civil Rights and the Free Speech movements. But progressive women seeking traditional Indigenous knowledge are at a distinct disadvantage. They can only, to a limited extent, bring their ideas of womanhood to the table and for the most part, must accede to the superior knowledge of the (most likely) male traditionalist.

My great aunt’s descriptions of Lakota life are eloquently encapsulated in two of her books, the ethnographic novel, Waterlily and another more polemical work Speaking of Indians more in the vein of her famous nephew. The first time I read Waterlily, I cried. I felt a profound loss for something I had never known. I had lost my place in a community to which I could have belonged entirely in a way, that I could not in this fractured, Anglo-centric society.

I remember in my Native American studies class, a white, male student who mocked the descriptions of Lakota society in Water Lily, saying that the author had to have made up such a perfect society since everyone knows Indian communities were unfair and brutal places to live. The professor, Elaine A. Jahner, who had edited a book on Ella Deloria’s translations and studied under her, stated simply and firmly, that nothing was made up. Everything was precisely as she had documented it.

But was everything as perfect as she documented it? There was even in earlier days, a reconstruction of Lakota society going on. A reinterpretation as seen in George Sword’s narratives and translated by Ella working for “the father of American anthropology” Franz Boas. George Sword was a Lakota man who was literate in Lakota and wrote these stories down between 1890 and 1910. Later, when Ella tried to verify the stories by going back to the reservations in the 1920s, no one could recall ever hearing the stories told that way before. He had reinvented them to fit the conventions of European fairytales. No one had ever told the stories that personified the sun and other figures of cosmology. It was a revolutionary development; something Sword pursued as a way of preserving the spirit of the stories yet translating them into new cultural idioms for future generations to enjoy.

Elaine Jahnner delighted in telling the story about an elder in Montana who was the last in her tribe to know the old stories. She visited her at the grandson’s request because his grandmother wouldn’t tell him the stories. He hoped that Jahnner, his teacher, would have better luck and be able to record the stories before his grandmother died. When she entered the grandmother’s cabin, she was given a book to read. This was a published account done years before of the tribe’s stories. She instructed Jahnner to read the book to her, and every time she disagreed with something in the book, she would bring her cane down on the floor and roughly poke Elaine with it.

Finally, she said, “No more! See? That’s why I won’t tell my stories! I’m going to die with them intact!”

Once, when I asked my uncle Vine Deloria, Jr., what his aunt had told him about the old traditions, he shook his head and told me that she wouldn’t tell him anything. She had said that she’d rather die with the information than have the next generation get it all wrong. She said that these things were so important to the elders she knew, and they held them so dear that it would be worse to see them misinterpreted than to see them die out completely.

I was utterly frustrated by this attitude. It was the opposite of the method of learning and education I had received in school. I talked to my relative, Phil Lane, Sr., my grandmother’s cousin, but who was more like a grandfather to me. My own grandfather had died when my dad was 15, so I never knew him. Often, traditionally, the mother’s brother is the one who plays the role of instructing his sister’s children. In the Navajo way, he is their clan relative, and of course, the father is not. Although my dad’s tribe is not matrilineal, the uncle still plays this role. So, in a way as my grandmother’s male relative, as her brothers were all dead, he was just fulfilling an age-old duty, being an uncle to my father and a lala (grandfather) to his children.

When I told him these stories that I had heard at school and how they had upset me, he just laughed. He explained to me that traditionally, they taught in a different way. It wasn’t like in school where everyone is taught the same things at the same time, whether they are ready for it or not. Each individual was evaluated by the elder, and then it was determined whether they should know a story or any sort of lesson. He also told me how it was considered extremely impolite to ask someone a question. You waited until they told you. You just figured if they wanted you to know they would tell you. If you really needed to know something that information would be revealed to you, by a vision, a teacher or through observing nature. So, the grandmother’s actions showed that she had judged her grandson not ready to know the stories and that she had confidence in future generations to discover those stories that were important to them on their own through methods available to them. This certainly made me feel better, but I still just wanted to know the traditions and have them told to me.

But, really, it was up on the hill on a vision quest fasting that I came to understand this way of thinking. Seeking a vision of my own, I came to understand how hard-won these insights were and how beloved the society was to those that had lost it. It was, as my great-aunt said, “A way of life that worked.” And I would add, for them because each generation must find their own way. Their own traditions that work for them at this time. Our elders wanted us to do it that way. We cannot as modern Lakota/Dakota or even Diné or American women be constrained by them. We can be informed by them, even inspired, but we must make decisions for our bodies, our future, our well-being that are sensible and that show that we value ourselves. We, as women, are more than our biology, we are more than just baby machines for a Lakota Nation, a Dakota Nation, or a Nakota Nation. We are productive members of society; we are the ones earning the college degrees, holding the jobs and are the ones, by and large, that must raise the children, earn wages to buy them shoes and pay for their futures. We must be the ones to be able to make these choices concerning our bodies.

It may be tradition to do this or that, according to this person or that, but we must look clearly at what future we are dealing our young women when we assign them this lot so early in life especially if that child is from rape or incest. Women are capable of knowing whether they have the resources to give a child a good life. Unless they are able to make that choice the continued cycle of grinding poverty will continue to spiral out of control. This is not about killing babies, but about growing strong families that have the resources to take care of each other. If we speak of a tradition that values life, we must also speak of a tradition that valued self-control. Lakota/Dakota/Nakota men were taught to control their sexual drive. Traditionally, a man was not a man unless he could control himself. A couple that had children closer than four years apart faced deep shame in the community. It was regarded and called “killing the child."  Children were supposed to be spaced four years apart, any less and you endangered the older child. It was a shame that stayed with the “killed child” for the rest of their lives. People who knew would look upon that child with pity. Even in old age, it would be remembered how the parents had disrespected their elder child.

So, when we talk about tradition, we must realize that it cannot work in bits and pieces. And that even if wholly intact, it may not work at all today. If women must not commit abortion, then Lakota men on the reservation must practice this traditional form of manhood and have strict control of their sexual drive. The reason women on the reservation face some of the highest rates of rape and incest in the country is because men, obviously, do not practice this. One gender cannot pay the price for a broken society. And we cannot ignore the real price women pay and that children pay raised in difficult circumstances. Raising children is no small feat. And periods of pregnancy and childbirth mark periods of the greatest economic stress for families in the United States on or off the reservation. Expectant parents in the United States are more likely to slide below the poverty level. Women in the workforce, educated or not, are more likely to face negative job performance reviews when they are pregnant.

Society punishes women for veering from the male norm. Asking women to bear children so that no Lakota fetus may be killed sounds noble, but does it change anything? The Oglala tribe resides in Shannon County, consistently ranked as the poorest county in the nation. Resources are scarce. Unemployment at 85%. Pregnancy reduces the chances of young women to get an education, provide for their children, and improve the economic status of future generations. Even for college-educated women, paying for childcare can be an expensive proposition and expecting grandma or some other female relative to stay home and watch the children is not always feasible as most of the tribal members who hold jobs on the reservation are female. Most of the college degrees held by tribal members are held by women. Yet, most of the tribal council is male.

There was a certain pragmatism to the old Lakota/Dakota/Nakota traditions perceptible in the harsh community condemnation of parents who bore children too close together. It is obvious that they valued the life that already exists more than that might be. That they held self-evident that parents and the community should do everything in their power to ensure the well-being of the children who already exist to not only survive but thrive. How is the Oglala Nation doing this today if they do not value the lives and potentiality of their women? Why are they willing to create a generation of "killed women"? Even of "killed children" as many of these young women are little more than children themselves? I am a mother, and I am raising two children. The effort and daily investment in each child is great even after only six years of motherhood. I value my children, and as such, I value their potential. I would never demand my daughter, as a teenager, bear a child of rape or incest. It would be devaluing her. It would be "killing" her because I am forcing into life another life before the present is able to bear it. This was something that our ancestors understood. Perhaps, better than we do now.

And if we create a society of our own, now, today that we love and enjoy and raise children who are beautiful and safe from harm, are we not truly then following in our ancestors' footsteps? Isn’t that really the kind of society they would have understood and valued? Isn’t that, after all, what they had hoped and prayed for in those tumultuous last days before the hoop was broken?
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CheyFire said...

I agree with you that women have a rightful place in the ways and the traditions of the Native people. History is filled with the stories, legends, and strengths of native women as they struggled to survive the changes in this country and still preserve the Native truths.

I am glad to see that there are other blogs that try to keep abreast of the real news and the present day activities that affect the Native way of life.

I am a registered nurse and try to find articles that impact the health and the care of the Native people, but I also know that there are many ongoing political debates that affect many tribes.

Health for the Native American is in crisis with much diabetes, renal disease, and addictions taking an enormous toll on the dwindling number of people and tribes left.

People must realize that the greatest enemy is no longer the government or the destruction of the Natvie ways by white people, but the self destruction of our own culture and own our flesh by our choices and lifestyles and the giving away of the control over our own bodies.

Poverty is great in the tribes, I do know that, and the resources for empowerment seem impossible. The greatest battle for all Native people can only be won by each one of us, male and female, choosing to control our own flesh that the spirit man lives in and keep it healthy and strong and vigilent.

All Native people have the right to choose how they will treat their body and their health. That is what distresses me as a nurse. Illness and disease are destroying the Native way of life greater than any war ever did.

If we as a people allow the diseases and sicknesses of the world to reside within us, then what true Native lives are left will soon be gone within the next few generations.

My grandmother was full Seminole and a beautiful woman of strength and honor.

She had no birth certificate that I could trace or find and has passed away long ago.. making tracing her heritage impossible for me, yet I will always honor her through the way she lived and the things that I can remember.

I hope that my comment was not too long and not too "preachy". I just want to say that I agree with you and applaude you. If there is any way I can support you and be of assistance, let me know.

aka CheyFire

katrina said...


Alison Stine said...

I am moved and inspired by your writing. Thank you.

Paige said...

Great post. Thank you. Very insightful.

meesh said...

I was shocked and saddened to hear the news about Cecilia Fire Thunder here. I had not heard this yet. I was so hopeful when I first heard that she was trying to help women in South Dakota. I can only imagine how betrayed she and her sisters must feel.

Thank you for this beautiful and insightful post. You have given me a lot to think about.

sharanya said...

A thoughtful and insightful post. Thanks for writing this.

terryarthur said...

Great article.

Does anyone know supporters of the women's center and Fire Thunder who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation? If so, can they get in touch with

Also, help spread the word, the website for Sacred Choices has information on the center & they are still looking to raise $.

MWH said...

I am not Native American, but your observations are dead on and applicable to all women in this country. You so eloquently voice the argument for all women to have a choice and a voice in their own bodies. Women have always been demonized in this issue when no one considers quality of life for the unwanted babies or the lack of responsibility of the men. I am a single mother of a daughter. I thank you for your words and plan to share them with every woman I know.

Ajijaak said...

This is an excellent piece. I just stumbled upon your blog and will add it to my blog list.


Alena said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.