Ms Fire Thunder was the third of seven daughters, and the family lived in a house built by their father. Although poor, they had a happy if strict upbringing. Ms Fire Thunder spoke her native language at home, and did not learn to speak English until attending Catholic Red Cloud Indian School. She continues to promote learning of the native Lakota language on the Reservation to this day.
In 1963 the family decided to take part in the Relocation programme under the Bureau of Indian Affairs policy sponsored by the Eisenhower government. The programme promised better futures for families who moved from Reservation land to urban dwellings. The family moved to Los Angeles, California, where her father became a Factory Worker and was luckier than many in that it was a well-paid, unionised position.
Upon graduating High School, Ms Fire Thunder married and had two children. Unfortunately the marriage did not work out, and she was forced for a while seek assistance from the welfare programme. With the aid of a Social Worker, Ms Fire Thunder became a licensed Nurse. Upon qualifying Ms Fire Thunder began to work for the betterment of Native Americans. She helped establish the first free health clinic for Native Americans in Compton, California. Ms Fire Thunder moved to San Diego in 1980 where she founded another clinic, and also began to lobby the state legislature for more money for Native American medical assistance.
In 1986 Ms Fire Thunder returned to the Pine Ridge Reservation, where she was given the Lakota name of Good Hearted Woman for her services and advocacy for Native American healthcare and formed the Oglala Lakota Women’s Society. She also worked for the Bennett County Hospital.
Ms Fire Thunder devoted herself to healthcare but also to fighting domestic violence and the statistically higher prevalence of rape within the community (Native American women are 3 ½ times more likely to be raped than the national average). She met with resistance, but continued to raise awareness and provide support to those in unhealthy domestic situations. The position of Native American women in South Dakota is harsh, with almost half statistically stated to be “poor” compared with only 10 percent of white women, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research report on the Status of Women in South Dakota. On the Reservation in general the unemployment rate is 85 percent with an average life expectancy for residents of 46 for men and 55 for women.
In 2004 Ms Fire Thunder took the controversial move of standing for election to be Tribal Leader. She was the first woman to do so, and met with significant opposition. Her opponent, Russell Means (activist and actor) and his supporters would play on the significant departure from tradition electing a woman would mean. Despite suffering sexist propaganda, Ms Fire Thunder won the election and became the first female tribal leader (or President) of the Reservation. She sealed a deal with the Shakopee Tribe of Minnesota to borrow funds to raise the Lakota out of the debt they were in, but her opponents strongly disagreed with her move and sought to impeach her. They were not successful.
Tribal land is not subject to state law, and in early 2006 Ms Fire Thunder sought to open a Planned Parenthood clinic on reservation land, which would offer family planning advice including abortion services. Planned Parenthood stated they did not have plans to open a clinic, so Ms Fire Thunder states she would campaign for an independent clinic to be created. She became co-chair of the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, to fight the South Dakota statewide ban on provision of abortion services, just signed into law by the State Governor. Women at this time in the tribe had no access to such services under any circumstances. She met with fierce opposition and for the second time, the Tribal Council sought to impeach Ms Fire Thunder for this stand. This time they were successful and on 29th June 2006 she was forced to stand down.
Ms Fire Thunder still serves her community and is a member of National Advisory Board of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS) and a coordinator of the Native Women's Society of the Great Plains. She has vowed to continue the fight for the rights of the women and to stand for election again, saying “as a private citizen, as one Indian woman in South Dakota, my voice would not be heard. But as the leader of a great nation, my voice was heard”.*
Ms Fire Thunder is renowned as an advocate for wellness and women’s issues and for her unique way of reaching the hearts of communities and people. She continues to fight for the rights of Native Americans and for access to domestic violence and family planning support services for all women, stating “As a woman, it's my job to support women. It's my job to support my sisters”**.
* Sonneborn, Liz. "Fire Thunder, Cecelia." A to Z of American Indian Women, Revised Edition, A to Z of Women. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2007. American Women's History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp ItemID=WE42&iPin=AIW049&SingleRecord=True (accessed June 28, 2013)
Blog by Tina Price-Johnson