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.
From Euro/American exploration and settlement onward, 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.
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.”