In 2006, Sunny Clifford was a normal young woman with a normal life.
She had just completed two years of college in Oklahoma and had returned to her hometown of Kyle to work as a grocery-store clerk.
One day in March, she read that her Oglala Sioux Tribe’s president, Cecilia Fire Thunder, a nurse, had challenged South Dakota’s law banning almost all abortion, citing the sovereignty of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She said she would defy the rule and initiated efforts to start a family planning clinic on tribal land.
Later, the OST tribal council voted to impeach Fire Thunder for proceeding without first receiving its approval, among other claims.
Her curiousity piqued, Clifford attended the impeachment hearing, which was the spark that ignited her political awareness, and it led her to be featured in the documentary film “Young Lakota,” which premieres Monday, Nov. 25, at 8 p.m. on PBS.
The film, and another, “Indian Relay,” are being shown to honor Native American Heritage Month, as part of the channel’s Emmy Award-winning Independent Lens series.
“Cecilia was the first female president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and I looked up to her,” said Clifford, now 28, in a telephone interview from her Southern California home. “I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t being allowed to help women make their own choices.”
"Young Lakota's" co-producers and co-directors, Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt, were on the Pine Ridge reservation researching a potential documentary film at the time of Fire Thunder’s impeachment. They said they were struck with then-21-year-old Clifford, her twin sister, Serena, and the twins’ neighbor, Brandon Ferguson.
“We were interested in why these three young people were attending the impeachment hearing, so we started a dialogue with them,” said Rosenblatt in a telephone interview from New York. “We saw the potential for a narrative, so we decided to pursue it.”
Theirs was a narrative about the tumultuous tribal election to replace Fire Thunder and a narrative about the subsequent state vote defeating the abortion ban. But most of all, it was a narrative about how Clifford, her sister and their friends were affected by the cultural, economic and political circumstances of the times.
The coming-of-age tale is the sixth film for Lipschutz and Rosenblatt. Many of their other projects focus on reproductive-rights issues, but "Young Lakota" was different in that it featured multiple points of view.
“This film followed four different story lines and several characters,” Lipschutz said in a telephone interview from New York. “It was even more complicated because Cecilia was in the center of a media attack and although the impulse was sometimes to retreat, everyone realized the importance of having this story told.
"We wanted to tell the story from the point of view of the young people on the reservation," she said, "because we wanted to examine the impact it had on them as they became adults.”
Production on the film began in 2006, with PBS providing funding for the project. The actual filming process took several years.
“The process was long, but I believe we succeeded in telling a compelling, riveting and nuanced story. We really wanted to build bridges between Natives and the mainstream reproductive-justice community,” Rosenblatt said. “It’s important for those worlds to come together and work together.”
“Young Lakota” has been screened in cities across the country, including Kyle and in Rapid City at the Journey Museum last month.
“The audience at the Journey (Museum) loved the film and gave us a standing ovation,” said Rosenblatt. “They told is that we really captured Indian Country and that it wasn’t your typical ‘poverty porn.’”
Lipschutz said being on the reservation to film the movie was like glimpsing a different world. “It’s hard to imagine a place more affected by restrictions and laws, so when the film came out, it was gratifying that the audience felt like we got it right. There’s nothing quite like that feeling of satisfaction.”
Clifford said she hadn't been aware she was a feminist before the filming of “Young Lakota.”
“It wasn’t all about abortion politics for me,” she said, “but it was more about restricting women’s choices. This was an important concept to me as a Native American woman whose ancestors were severely oppressed by the U.S. government.
"The abortion ban felt like an extension of that.”
Having attended screenings of “Young Lakota” in Toronto, San Francisco, New York and other cities, Clifford said that not only has she seen more of the world, but she’s also grown as a person thanks to the project.
“I’ve become my own person. I am much more confident in my beliefs and values,” she said.
Married today and living with her husband in Southern California, Clifford said she’d like to return to the reservation.
“Even though I don’t agree with all of the politics, Pine Ridge is where I feel most at home,” she said.