Friday, June 02, 2006

When Netroots Fail: Cecilia Fire Thunder vs. Male Hegemony in Pine Ridge

I thought this was going to be a nice little ray of sunshine piece, about how a modest netroots effort in the face of unjust legislation actually managed to make a difference. A little background for those who missed it the first time: the South Dakota abortion ban pissed off the president of the Oglala Sioux tribe in a major way.
''I'm always an advocate for women, it's all about women. To me, when I heard that [Gov. Mike Rounds] signed the bill including rape and incest, I was going, 'Wait a minute, we know that rape and incest occur - how do we allow white men to tell me what to do with my little brown body?'

''It was just intuitive as a woman to speak up. I shook the tree of denial on the Pine Ridge Reservation and now everyone is talking about it. Did you notice that it's mostly men criticizing what I've been doing?''
Her declaration took the blogosphere by storm and we all did little happy dances.

Her vow to open a women's clinic on the reservation, outside the SD legislature's jurisdiction, almost seemed knee-jerk at the time, a great idea or at least a bold boast that didn't have a chance in hell of becoming reality. But enough people were galvanized by Cecilia Fire Thunder's rhetorical flipoff to the SD governor to send thousands of dollars in donations and letters of support, and enough dollars piled up to make the clinic a reality.

Fire Thunder announced that the Sacred Choices clinic would be built on the reservation in the village of Kyle, to offer comprehensive women's health services--something that's been sorely lacking on the rez.
She said Pine Ridge has a population of beautiful young women who have no education or an awareness of making choices about their bodies.

''This is a good opportunity to do that.'' ''It's a hard enough decision to make, and how many women are strong enough to make that decision and stick by it? So when a woman makes up her mind, she doesn't need someone to undermine her decision. I'm just here to love you and hold your hand and support whatever decision you make,'' she said.
But the movement appears to have come to a crashing halt. The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council yesterday suspended Fire Thunder, pending impeachment, and enacted a ban on all abortions on the reservation.
"It was unauthorized political activity," said Will Peters, a tribal council representative from the Pine Ridge district. "It's just a matter of failing to communicate not only with the governing body but with the people that she was elected to serve."
Peters claims that if Fire Thunder had initially proposed the clinic as a comprehensive women's health center, the tribe wouldn't have had a problem with it. The perception that Sacred Choices was intended solely to provide abortion--despite the fact that Fire Thunder never explicitly used the term "abortion" when talking about the need for a clinic--was apparently too much for the council to take.
"Women need services. Women need support. Right now on the Pine Ridge reservation, there's very little support for women who have been raped," Fire Thunder said.

"If that's the way it was presented to people in the first place, I think she would have been OK," Peters said. "Her stand, by what we read and what we hear from all accounts, was to support abortion. I've never seen such a turn-around."
Peters went on to say that while he feels women should be allowed to control their own bodies, many of the people opposed to the clinic are themselves Lakota women, so he feels that he needs to support them as a Lakota man. I wonder if it bears repeating that Fire Thunder and the women on the Sacred Choices board of directors are also Lakota women who could use some support, that the simple presence of women among the detractors does not trump the greater numbers of female proponents. I fail to understand the logic that dictates a valuable project with the potential to improve the lives of half the reservation's people be discarded because it was initially pitched as an abortion provider.

Kim Tall Bear lauds Fire Thunder as a champion of both female and cultural sovereignity, and articulates the abortion conflict as a Lakota woman herself (emphasis mine):
For those of us who do not subscribe to certain Christian doctrinal teachings, but who do subscribe to cultural imperatives about the sacredness of life, our moral and political response to terminating a pregnancy is not captured by either of the most vocal positions in the American abortion wars: the ''pro-choice'' and ''pro-life'' positions.

My Dakota mother and great-grandmother, for example, did not let me forget the powerful potential of my body to bear children. I was taught that a child is sacred, and that an unwanted pregnancy was to be assiduously avoided through safe-sex practices and, when I was younger, through abstinence.

My mother and great-grandmother never used the words ''choice'' or ''rights,'' but rather they spoke of ''power'' and ''responsibility.'' But my mother and great-grandmother also took a leap of faith that I would have the space to be responsible for my body - that I would not, for example, face rape.

At the same time, I was raised with a politicized understanding of the world. Both women and men in my family and in our tribe endured their share of hardship, including sexual violence. I grew to understand that within a colonial context. Abortion, in that context, might be considered a sad but necessary decision.

We differed from the ''pro-choice'' position in that we spoke of this and all reproductive decisions not as a ''right'' or a ''choice,'' but as a responsibility that grew out of the power in women's bodies. We differed from the ''pro-life'' position in that we recognized that the decision could be shaped by the hardship and violence that haunt Indian people to this day. Our views about the sacred nature of the unborn child were not synonymous with fundamentalist Christian views. From my upbringing, I came to understand abortion as a difficult topic with only context-specific and imperfect solutions.
What happens next for the women of the Pine Ridge Reservation will be largely determined by what happens for the women of greater South Dakota. Betty Bull Bear, one of the board members, said it would be a wellness center, and the board would wait to see what happens with a statewide abortion ban referendum and any subsequent legal challenges before deciding whether to attempt to provide any abortion services.

Meanwhile, they'll start verifying and counting signatures next week from the referendum petition. Volunteers are claiming they already have more than three times the required 16,000-odd signatures, well ahead of the June 19 deadline.

Multiple issues are in play here--cultural views on abortion sometimes twined with and sometimes butting up against women's autonomy and power, entrenched poverty, domestic violence and rape that impacts Native women at a rate four times that of the non-indigenous population, and a mostly male (14 of 17 members) tribal council that has been resistant to the leadership of the first woman Oglala president since her inaguration. This is the second time Fire Thunder has been suspended and threatened with impeachment; she has been viewed as a maverick for going outside traditional channels to secure a loan from a different tribe to finance gaming operations (that impeachment attempt didn't stick). Depending on your perspective, she's either a mouthy woman who has forgotten her place or a courageous leader attempting to fight decades of oppression both within and from outside the Lakota Nation to better her people's lot. The support she enjoys among Lakota women--councilman Peters' claims notwithstanding--suggests the president is not the council member who's out of touch with the people she represents.

Would it have made a real difference if President Fire Thunder had gone through official channels to accept the thousands of dollars in unsolicited donations that poured into Pine Ridge from across the country? Would it have mattered if she had made "comprehensive health care" the first words out of her mouth any time she addressed the issue? As long as some people have a vested interest in keeping abortion or emergency contraception out of any discussion of comprehensive health care, and as long as others have an equally vested interest in maintaining their own gender-based power, I fear the answer will continue to be no.

No comments: