I have known Cecelia for 30 years. I first met her when she was fighting to establish a free clinic in Los Angeles for struggling Native families who were FOR (Fresh of the Rez). She was open with her own struggles and inspired other Native women with her story of how she was once a single welfare mom raising two sons, and then went to nursing school. She motivated them to have hopes and dreams.
Theda remembers a speech Fire Thunder gave some years ago and how it inspires her still. Fire Thunder's words are strong, and I can see how men on the reservation would not want to hear them.
Among my sacred things, I keep a video of a speech that Cecelia delivered after losing her bid to be elected President in 1990. Out of eight candidates, she had the third highest vote.
At a keynote address she delivered on May 8, 1990, at the National Indian Child Welfare Association meeting, her topic was “Community Empowerment.” She said, “My journey began 43 years ago. I was brought into this world, as many of you have experienced, I was delivered at home by a midwife as we say in the English language. An Indian woman helped my mother bring me into the world. Today she is 83 years-old. She is my teacher and she is my guide, she is the person I go to when I need to know if what I am doing is right. She told me one day, ‘you know its right when it hurts, you know its right when you cry, don’t even hesitate, DO IT, do what you have to do.’
“And that taught me a very important lesson, cause as Indian people, too often we put up these barriers — we can’t talk about it, or discuss it — we have roles that only women are suppose to do this, and only men can do that. I have come to the realization that when I look at the statistics in my community, I don’t give a damn anymore. I have to do something. I will step on toes, it is my responsibility. And that leads me to something else. In our communities, because of that oppression we talked about, we hurt each other more, and what I started to realize was that these barriers that people put in front of me can be overcome.
“I was driving across the Pine Ridge Reservation late one night and a drunk driver almost ran me off the road. I began to think, and as I looked at the statistics on homicide on my reservation, I looked at the statistics of women being brought into the emergency room because they were battered, and as I looked at the statistics of child abuse, and looked at the high school drop out rates, I looked at the number of kids that were being sent away for treatment. And as I looked at all these statistics, I began to realize that WE as Indian people, in our own communities are hurting each other more than any white man.
“Indian people have killed more Indian people on highways than any white man. Who is hurting our kids? Who is hitting them? With words? Who is hitting them emotionally? And who is hitting them with our fists? We are, their mothers, and their fathers, and their guardians. No one is making me do that, no one is taking my hand to hit my child, no one is making me take that drink, no one is making me drive drunk across the reservation, I am doing it myself.
“So when I look at the statistics in my community and across Indian Country, I realized that first and foremost before we blame anybody, before we blame any government, before we blame any Tribal Council, we have to start taking some responsibility for those problems in our lives. As I looked at the statistics, and the number of prosecutions, I realized that nothing is sacred in my community anymore.
“I am not going to respect somebody just because they are old, and I am not going to respect somebody just because they are in office. I am ONLY going to respect them as they respect themselves, and they respect their families, and they do things to help us provide, and start to realize what respect really means. The bottom line is this, my friends and my relatives — when our children are being used for sex — six, seven, and eight year-olds are being used for sex by grown adults, people we’re at the very bottom as Indian people on our reservations and communities.
And we have to start to come back up, to re-build, and this is your responsibility, it is our responsibility, this is my responsibility. It is the responsibility of leaders, tribal leaders, natural leaders, community leaders, of medicine people, of holy people, that these things are going wrong or caused by us, its done by our hands and our words. So we need to start to heal ourselves, we need to take ownership of the problems. And once we recognize it is our problems, then we start to build and address it.”
Its been sixteen years since that speech, and I have not seen her deter from her commitments, and from taking action, when others would just “give up” and take a job with retirement. I have watched her take on the next wellness effort without hesitation. She traveled the country and brought the Gathering of Native Americans (GONA) to Pine Ridge, Eagle Butte, Rosebud, in South Dakota, and even helped facilitate the Montana Tribes including the Crow Nation. I have seen her step forward and help the Native Wellness Institute move away from the University of Oklahoma, which was white controlled after Billy Rogers left.
She is on the new Board of the Native Wellness Institute and helped build it to its current success. She helped White Bison with a lot of their initial Community Mobilizations efforts. She gave her heart and soul to Karen Artichoker and her efforts to protect women on the Pine Ridge reservation. She worked on getting funds and passing legislation to protect Native women. She went to NCAI and other tribal leader gatherings and put the topic of stopping violence against women on the map.
To lead a Nation
The life of Cecelia Fire Thunder | Well Nations Magazine