Abortion issue prompts ouster of S.D. tribal leader

July 30, 2006|By JUDY PERES

KYLE, S.D. -- Cecelia Fire Thunder likes to recount the legend of the White Buffalo Calf Woman, who delivered the sacred pipe and its teachings to the Lakota nation.

Long ago, the legend goes, two men encountered a holy woman who first appeared to them as a white buffalo calf. One man, awe-struck, prayed. The other had lustful thoughts and tried to grab the woman. He was turned into a pile of bones.

"The first teaching of the pipe is sexual respect for women," said Fire Thunder, the first female president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Fire Thunder told the story recently to the tribal council, which had convened to impeach her over her support for an abortion clinic on the reservation. It did no good: The formidable, outspoken president was found guilty of overstepping her authority and ousted. She is challenging her removal on procedural grounds.

In the meantime, the tribe is embroiled in the politics of abortion -- an issue about which the Lakota almost never speak. The battle allows glimpses of how Native Americans are struggling amid the influences of a dominant white society, legal trends in South Dakota and political forces buffeting America.

The anti-abortion versus abortion rights conflict is a foreign import to Lakota country, the westernmost part of the Great Sioux Nation. Some experts say the Lakota language doesn't even have a word for "abortion." Others insist that Lakota women have always had medicine to terminate pregnancy.

Lenor Scheffler, a Native American attorney who practices in Minneapolis, said she was surprised when Fire Thunder offered to build a family-planning facility on the reservation.

"I wondered, how do we feel about abortion as a tribal people? We don't talk about it. We don't ask," Scheffler said.

What people on both sides seem to agree on is that abortion is women's business, not suitable for men to be discussing in the chambers of the tribal council or anywhere else.

Will Peters, the councilman who brought the impeachment charge and plans to run against Fire Thunder for president in November, said: "I didn't like being dragged into the abortion issue. ... In the Lakota culture, it's not a man's business to tell a woman what she can and cannot do."

So why did he vote to remove her? Because "she used her position as president to further her personal views," Peters said. "The president gets her orders from the tribal council, and she was never given the directive to pursue an abortion clinic."

In March, South Dakota's governor signed into law a near-total abortion ban that makes no exception for rape or incest. Fire Thunder, a nurse who has worked with victims of domestic violence, was outraged.

She said: "I will personally establish a Planned Parenthood clinic on my own land, which is within the boundaries of the Pine Ridge Reservation and where the state of South Dakota has absolutely no jurisdiction."

Rape and incest are common in Indian country, often linked to high rates of alcoholism and drug abuse. According to U.S. Justice Department statistics, Indian women are sexually assaulted at a rate more than three times higher than white women. The alcoholism rate on the reservation is at least double the national average.

"Who gave those men in Pierre the right to decide about a pregnancy caused by an act of violence?" Fire Thunder, 59, asked, referring to the state capital in a recent interview.

The state ban is on hold and might be repealed in the November election. If it is upheld, Planned Parenthood, which runs the only abortion clinic in South Dakota, is expected to challenge it in court.

Fire Thunder's clinic is likely years away. But the Oglala tribal council has passed an ordinance outlawing abortion on the reservation just in case.

There are no opinion polls on the reservation. However, numerous members of the tribe volunteered the view that abortion shouldn't be available on demand but should be an option in cases of rape or incest, or to protect the woman's health.

South Dakota's new law says performing an abortion is a felony unless the pregnant woman's life is in danger.

Some of Fire Thunder's opponents argue that a pregnant woman no longer has a choice because abortion is murder.

"We're killing babies in utero all the time with drugs and alcohol," Fire Thunder said. "Who's worrying about that?"

The motivation behind her removal goes beyond anti-abortion sentiment.

Council members have tried to remove her three times since her election in November 2004. (The first two times the charges were dropped.) Opponents say she is arrogant and spends too much time traveling the country.

"Change isn't easy," she said.

Both sides in the abortion debate claim to represent Lakota values. Those opposed to abortion -- or to Fire Thunder -- argue that life is sacred to the Lakota and all unborn children deserve protection.

Fire Thunder agrees that life is sacred, then adds, "I don't think the White Buffalo Calf Woman would approve of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest."

Judy Peres writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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