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Sam Hurst, 12-18: Cecilia Fire Thunder a 'person of character'

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Tomorrow morning, after a 20-day suspension that has turned into almost two months, Oglala Sioux Tribal President Cecilia Fire Thunder will have an opportunity to confront her accusers. The first complaint: She's not a member of the tribe!

I have a hard time keeping a straight face. The history of tribal government is so riddled with petty jealousies, ineptitude, financial scandal, grassroots rebellions and the heavy-handed specter of unelected "traditional leadership" that it is hard for outsiders to take the workings of the Tribal Council seriously. But President Fire Thunder doesn't share my impatience.

For three hours last week she sat with me and told me her life story.

She was born at home on the Pine Ridge near the community of Kyle in 1946. "It is part of our tradition that a person of character is chosen to be at the birth," she tells me. "That person is the first to touch the baby, and their good character is passed to the baby by the touch. We have a saying, 'e-oyu-jun-tape,' which literally means, 'putting her finger in the mouth,' to clean away the mucous. All the history of our people, the sense of belonging, the deep roots, are passed to the baby with the touch. For me, that person of character was Nellie Red Owl."

Fire Thunder grew up with six sisters. "My parents were nurturing, but my father was very protective. We were never hungry, never afraid. My father taught us the work ethic, and I have been working since I was 15. My father was a traditional singer, and my mother was a culture-keeper. Oh … she was the best story teller."

Cecilia went to Red Cloud Indian School. "Catholic School was a brain-washing experience. The colonization was intense." At home, in the community, with friends, she spoke Lakota. But at school, the nuns punished children for speaking their native language. "We did it anyway," she says casually. She is still a fluent speaker.

In 1963, her family moved to Los Angeles as part of a BIA-sponsored migration of Indian families from poor reservations to big cities. She got married and had two sons. She became a nurse, founded community-based health clinics in Los Angeles and San Diego and learned how to maneuver in the world of white politics. "My first assignment was to find doctors for the clinic. I just got out the phone book and started at 'A.' I kept asking doctors if they wanted to volunteer to help Native Americans. By the time I was through, I had professors from USC and UCLA. That's how I learned that you have to ask when you need help. Change won't happen by itself. You have to work hard at it."

She came home to Pine Ridge in 1986 and took a job working the night shift at Bennett County Hospital. She helped found the Oglala Lakota Women's Society and organized against child abuse, domestic violence and fought for the simple principle of "sober leadership."

She knew she wanted to participate in tribal politics, but she waited until she thought she was ready.

"Ready for what?" I ask.

"The pain and anger on the reservation is so deep that I knew I would be attacked. I didn't want to run for office until I knew I was strong enough not to take the criticisms personally.

"There are some people in the community who want me to fail because I am a woman. But they have to understand that 68 percent of the college graduates on the reservation are women. Seventy percent of the jobs are held by women. Over 90 percent of the jobs in our schools are held by women."

She ran for president on a promise to clean up tribal government. But she had no idea just how bad the problems were. "The first two months were financial chaos. Our credit rating was just horrible. We had huge debt payments coming due, and no money to pay them. I was getting calls at home from vendors saying that we hadn't paid them in a year. It was like walking into a nightmare."

By the time she sorted it all out, she figured that the tribe was juggling almost $20 million in short-term debt.

True to her spirit as a community organizer, she picked up the phone and started calling … casino tribes. When no one replied, she told her staff to write letters … again and again. Finally, the president of the Shakopee Tribe in Minnesota offered to help. After weeks of negotiations, President Fire Thunder secured a $38 million loan at 6.5 percent interest for 15 years. She paid off the tribe's debts and invested half the money in an expansion of the tribe's casino.

For the first time in decades, the tribe is on solid ground financially. But the criticisms keep coming. Some people on the reservation are convinced that she leveraged the loan with tribal land, a charge she vehemently denies.

I can't help thinking about the "person of character" at the bedside of a traditional Lakota birth. The spirit of Nellie Red Owl. Is it possible that Cecilia Fire Thunder's decisive leadership has given the tribe a new future? Is it possible that she has "her finger in the mouth … (e-oyu-jun-tape)" of the tribe and is, with her touch, giving the tribe new life?

Sam Hurst is a Rapid City filmmaker. Write to samhurst@aol.com.

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