When South Dakota passed the nation’s most restrictive abortion measure in 2006, Cecelia Fire Thunder proposed what seemed to be a neat workaround: open an abortion-providing Planned Parenthood on her property on the Oglala Lakota reservation. Part of a sovereign Indian nation, her land was out of the reach of state authorities.
As the first female chief of the Oglala Lakota, Fire Thunder became embroiled in the fight of her political life and was eventually impeached. Veteran filmmakers Rose Rosenblatt and Marion Lipschutz (the team behind 2005’s The Education of Shelby Knox, among other films) chronicle her struggle in the new documentary Young Lakota. It airs November 25 on PBS’ Independent Lens series.
The Pine Ridge Lakota (commonly known as Sioux) reservation became a battleground when the South Dakota legislature passed HB 1215, the “Women’s Health and Human Life Protection” bill, which banned all abortions in the state, even for survivors of rape and incest. The bill also declared that life starts at conception, made performing abortions a felony punishable by five years in prison and fines, and included questionable language about when and whether abortion would be allowed in life-threatening medical situations. Opponents forced a public referendum to decide whether the state—which then only had two abortion providers, according to 2005 statistics from the Guttmacher Institute—would launch this unprecedented and blatant state challenge to Roe v. Wade.
The embattled Fire Thunder was battling a many-headed hydra of opposition. As the first female Oglala woman chief, Fire Thunder could draw on traditions of Lakota women’s leadership and invoke White Buffalo Calf Woman as her people’s most powerful mythic figure and prophet. But she was also pushing back against a predominantly male tribal establishment and the intensely local, dysfunctional-extended-family nature of much tribal politics. Not to mention abortion stigma and managing the avalanche of national media attention and activism sparked by the South Dakota ban.
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Tall and plainspoken, Fire Thunder didn’t shy away from tackling her detractors head-on or placing the abortion ban in the long history of damaging U.S. intervention in Native America. Young Lakota shows her pointing a finger at supporters of the proposed abortion ban; in one scene, the camera pans to a few white men standing in the back of the room and holding signs that say abortion kills sacred life. Throwing them a challenging glare, Fire Thunder calls them out and tells them to “keep your white hands off my brown body.”
It’s difficult to assess, from the film’s standpoint, whether Fire Thunder’s charge of a racism- or colonialism-driven anti-abortion influence is a valid accusation. Given the recent rise of “pro-life” marketing campaigns targeting multicultural communities and the forced sterilizations of Native women in the 1970s, it’s believable. However, Young Lakota doesn’t back up this allegation convincingly. This is the film’s most glaring unanswered question, though it’s undoubtedly difficult to trace players in an abortion dogfight where operating in the dark is key to successful political maneuvering.
But it is clear from reports by the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics that multiple state and national interest groups poured millions into swaying South Dakotans to vote for or against Referendum 6. The South Dakota Vote Yes for Life campaign raised more than $2.7 million and was joined by the Catholic Chancery and the National Right to Life Committee. On the other side, the South Dakota Campaign for Health Families reported more than $2.5 million in contributions; the regional Planned Parenthood affiliate raised more than $800,000 to defeat the bill, while the American Civil Liberties Union and the Feminist Majority also chipped in.
Beyond the influence of big money on the “battle of the ban,” there are also small details about Cecilia Fire Thunder and tribal politics that don’t come to light in the documentary. It would have been helpful to know that Fire Thunder was a nurse, with a track record of managing community health programs, to understand her longstanding commitment to comprehensive reproductive health care. Neither do we learn that her impeachment was only the most recent volley in a continuing conflict between Fire Thunder and her councilmates.
Ultimately, Young Lakota doesn’t dwell on the minutiae of Fire Thunder’s rise and eventual ouster because it doesn’t need to. It is a shapeshifter of a film. Though it begins with Fire Thunder, the documentary shifts its lens to some of her young tribe members: 21-year-old Sunny Clifford, one of Fire Thunder’s most steadfast supporters; her twin and less vocal partner, the single mother Serena; and their friend, Brandon, a lanky college student and part-time radio announcer who struggles to keep his two children in diapers.
The filmmakers give us a glimpse of what it means to be American Indian, living on a reservation, and young. They do service to the idea of reproductive justice by decentering the abortion narrative and problematizing the language of choice. Being in constrained economic circumstances limits the choices that you can make, and all choices are not created equal. Young father Brandon goes deeper into the morass of tribal politics, taking a $30,000 a year job as the new chief’s mouthpiece. For a kid on the reservation and a parent who’s got to buy those $20 packs of Huggies, that’s an attractive salary when about a third of Pine Ridge residents make less than $15,000 a year. Brandon imagines himself in fancy cars and slick suits, but later realizes his income upgrade comes with uncomfortable costs.
The true heart of the film is Sunny Clifford, who left college in Oklahoma and now works as a cashier. “We’re not really expected to do much,” she says, speaking of young Lakota women as she stocks pregnancy tests on a shelf. But they are expected to bear much, including children and astoundingly high rates of physical and sexual violence.
Sunny sets herself on a course of “Organizing 101,” going to hearings and canvassing door-to-door on the reservation. In the film’s most moving moment, she asks a visiting Seminole rapper what he thinks of the Pine Ridge abortion controversy. He responds with a monologue about the sacredness of Indian women’s lives and how they shouldn’t debase themselves. His message of ethnic solidarity and uplift is a masked dismissal and rebuke, a message not lost on Clifford. She leaves, crying and upset that he doesn’t understand what it’s like when you’re young, when your parents are absent or alcoholic, and you’ve got to make your own way in the world.
Young Lakota does its finest work in these quiet but significant moments and in the talks between the title characters. Feminist and pro-choice movement builders should take note. There’s meaningful and respectful intergenerational learning and mentorship between Sunny Clifford and Cecelia Fire Thunder. Clifford’s not the pro-choice movement’s usual activist, and she indeed may not have defined herself as a pro-choice activist but rather as an advocate for Lakota women and youth. But, over the course of the film, she grew into an activism enriched by her existing social network, her cultural frame, and her own experiences. And she bolstered the larger movement one step, one door knock, and one conversation at a time.