PINE RIDGE - Cecilia Fire Thunder has a lot of admirers around Indian Country and elsewhere.
But things haven't been going well for Fire Thunder, the first woman president to lead the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota.
Before her foray into politics, she'd been a longtime advocate for women, carving her life path as a nurse and grassroots leader. But she decided to leave that circle and step into a ring of fire. In 2004, Fire Thunder ran for president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
Tribal elections can get interesting - it's often hard to escape extended family voting power, vote-buying influence and a usual distribution of scurrilous silent-author newsletters. But Fire Thunder's bid for tribal president was especially intriguing because she and internationally known activist-actor Russell Means emerged as the top vote-getters, beating out then-President John Yellowbird Steele.
Fire Thunder then prevailed over Means - a former American Indian Movement leader, who in recent years has challenged tribal sovereignty for his own personal gain - in the final election. Means' ideas were too radical, whereas Fire Thunder succeeded in wooing voters trying to survive day by day.
On the tribal council, however, Fire Thunder has had a hard time finding allies. Twice, her fellow councilmen have voted to impeach her. The first ousting came in 2005 after complaints that she had disrespected elders and improperly sought a multimillion-dollar loan to keep the tribal government from shutting down.
The council reinstated her after she filed for a hearing date.
Her second impeachment followed in June.
And on July 17, she announced she had been reinstated. A few hours later, a tribal councilman said the reinstatement had been revoked. The tribal court, he said, didn't have the right to interfere with tribal council proceedings.
What are the Oglalas up to?
Fire Thunder's political career initially seemed full of promise. Her triumph at the polls stood as a testament to her can-do attitude and grassroots strength.
But some of her imbroglios harken back to what Pine Ridge politics might have been like if Means had been elected - expect the unexpected. (Means once proposed opening a beer store in Whiteclay, Neb., as a way to pay for an alcohol treatment center for Oglalas on the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation.)
But if politics at Pine Ridge seems a little edgy, South Dakota's lawmakers have kicked it up a notch.
On Feb. 24, state representatives and senators passed a dramatic and controversial law that criminalizes all abortions in the state, even in the case of rape or incest. The only legal abortion would be to save the life of a woman.
The lawmakers who voted for the bill appear out of sync with fellow South Dakotans. A 2004 public opinion poll by the state's largest newspaper and a Sioux Falls television station showed 68 percent of those surveyed supported some form of abortion, either wholly or in specific circumstances.
Now comes Fire Thunder.
She didn't believe state lawmakers should have the right to force a girl raped by her father to give birth to an unwanted child. Acting upon the suggestion of others, she asserted that an abortion clinic could be built on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Her mantra: If I build it, they will come. The tribe, she said, had a right to assert its sovereignty. It was free to govern its people free of state influence.
On its face, asserting tribal sovereignty is a good thing.
But Fire Thunder was apparently out of sync with many Lakota.
When her proposal made national headlines, the OST president hit a brick wall at home. Many Lakota believe a child's spirit chooses its parents. Babies are considered "wakan yeja," or holy children.
Criticism came hard and fast.
Fire Thunder started to backtrack. She then said she had a right to free speech as a private citizen. But the argument appeared weak since people had been asked to send donations for a Planned Parenthood clinic to: Oglala Sioux Tribe, ATTN: President Fire Thunder.
Some have argued that Fire Thunder acted too independently.
Yet, I've seen plenty of male tribal leaders do the same - and get away with it.
Still, it seems unwise for any public official to take a personal stance on any controversial, politicized issue.
Fire Thunder's two-year term as president was set to end in October. If the council has its way, the Oglala Sioux Tribe's first elected female president will be gone much sooner.
Jodi Rave covers American Indian issues for Lee Enterprises and the Missoula (Mont.) Missoulian. Write to Jodi at 406-523-5299 or email@example.com.