I watched Cecelia Firethunder get on the escalator next to me wearing a black grandma-scarf style shawl around her shoulders. She smiles as we go to the third floor, and talks to people going up as we go down.
It’s the 75th annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians in Denver. The very same city where this “oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization” that serves tribal nations was founded in 1944.
“I only come here to socialize,” she said with a laugh. “Well, I socialize and work. It’s my getaway. I get a lot done here.” A full six days of socializing (and working) for the president of Oglala Lakota Nation Education Coalition. She doesn’t seem to mind that she will spend her birthday, today, at a convention away from home.
The now 72-year-old is trying to push through an education resolution that would change the wording in the Indian Health Care Improvement Act to “allow 130 tribally-controlled schools to have access to purchase their health insurance under the Federal Health Insurance Program.” The same insurance used by federal employees and employees of Bureau of Indian Affairs operated schools.
Since all the movers and shakers of Indian Country are here, especially those in politics, it makes sense that she’s here to network.
We’re not even off the escalator and she’s ready to hop off and greet the friend she was waving at. She makes networking look so effortless.
Moments earlier she spoke at the meet and greet fundraiser for Paulette Jordan, who is running to be the first Native American governor of Idaho, and Deb Haaland, a candidate for Congress in New Mexico. “We're all sister friends. We've known each other for 45 years,” she said. “We knew each other and we didn't have any wrinkles.” Attendees burst in laughter.
Firethunder, former president of Oglala Sioux Tribe and the first woman to hold that position, spoke with a laundry list of mostly women speakers who trail-blazed their way to leadership posts. Veronica Murdock, the first woman president of NCAI, was also on that speaker list. (Another first.) So having Firethunder talk about Native women demanding a spot for themselves in politics fit perfectly.
“It's really hard to run for office as hard amongst our own people, but especially amongst other people out there, the perception, the bad things they say about you,” she said. The Oglala Lakota woman would know since she was impeached in 2006. She tried to establish a women’s clinic on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota after the state banned abortions.
One of her defying quotes floating around the newswire from that time is, “To me, it is now a question of sovereignty, I will personally establish a Planned Parenthood clinic on my own land which is within the boundaries of the Pine Ridge Reservation where the State of South Dakota has absolutely no jurisdiction."
She puts aside that bad blood between her and the state and talked proudly of the Native women running for office.
“Today in the state of South Dakota, we have six women running for the state legislature, all young women under 40. How cool is that? And then we have one running for secretary of state and we have a one man running for public utilities commission,” she said. “We have this tremendous movement to get our people to not only run for tribal leadership, but to go to state level, and now to the congressional level where decisions are made that affect us.”
Her humor erupts again followed by, “Ayyeeeee!”
Her last comments closing her encapsulates her recognizing the reality of the world and using that to inspire and help Native communities. She does it with humor and honesty.
“That flag represents the U.S. government so we have to step up, understand it. And most importantly, use that power to continue to help our people as we move ahead,” she said. “But I’m hoping and praying they’re going to discover gold on the moon so all the white guys will leave.”
Again, laughter from the crowd. Julie Johnson, who has known Firethunder for sometime, thanks her and says, “She never ceases to surprise me.”
I found Firethunder’s confidence contagious in the five interactions I had with her during the first three days of the convention. Some may say that it is slightly intimidating. But as you can imagine, holding the rare position of tribal president as a woman required a lot of strength.
"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,” she told the Rapid City Journal in 2005. "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 had to carry her chin high to prove she could do the job. That strength and passion combined makes her unstoppable. Even with years of experience in leadership positions, she reads leadership books today to find ways to bring about change. She also calls on the strength of her five grandmothers.
“I’m a mixed blood Indian,” she said standing at the Indian Country Today booth. “I wouldn’t be successful without my five grandmothers’ blood running through me.”
“My Mexican grandmother gave me moves,” she said and started dancing in front of the booth while people walk into the second general assembly around 8:30 a.m. “My French grandmother allowed me to dress well,” and she places her hands on her red leather jacket with a smile.
Of course, humor is part of her charm. It makes her approachable. But it’s college professor’s passion that reminds you she won’t take no for an answer. (I mean she tried to place a Planned Parenthood on her reservation with South Dakota’s abortion laws.)
And her passion stuck out at the Violence Against Women task force all-day meeting on the first day. I didn’t know who she was but her ability to paint a vivid, real image of domestic violence with words silenced the room.
Moderators of the meeting opened the floor to people who wanted to add comments to the gaps in the Violence Against Women Act. The act is due for reauthorization after the midterm election and the task forced wanted to get as much input from the community as possible.
Her first words to everyone part of the task force: “What is a success?”
Since the 2002 establishment of the task force, all she’s witnessed is an increase in domestic violence and child abuse.
Firethunder said the act covers Native women, but “we forget about the children.”
“Child abuse to me is children who see their mom get beat up. That seems to be a common theme across Indian Country.
“More people have seen their mother get beat up and more people have seen their mother get beat up. I know children who have seen not only their mother get beat up but they watched her get raped,” she said in a later interview. “Pull her bloomers down, stuck a penis in her. Excuse me, but what kind of image is that? What kind of image is that?” Silence.
She painted a stomach-sickening photo that is hard to swallow for Native communities. She’s not afraid to be honest. Native communities have to talk about it and do something about it, she said. If not, nothing will get done and the outrage will continue.
“One of things we talked about is where do girls learn that it’s okay to be abused when they grow up? By watching their mother get beat up. Where do boys know how to control their partners? By watching dad beat her up,” she said while we sat at the hotel restaurant. “Who is your best teacher in your home? What did you see day in and day out? And not matter how educated you are, no matter how much you know that that’s not good. Ultimately, what you learn kicks in.”
Firethunder talks about this “all the time” with her colleague and friend Patricia Whitefoot, Yakama and Dine, who was president of the National Indian Education Association.
After talking with them about childhood trauma, domestic violence, missing and murdered Indigenous women, secondary trauma and law enforcement for over an hour, the pair started reminiscing about their time in the city together. They attended the Democratic National Convention 10 years ago.
They talked about how many people would take photos of and with them in their regalia.
Whitefoot laughed about the memories and she recalls not crying, but bawling, during former President Obama’s speech.
While the DNC was fun, Firethunder was blown away by the highly-educated Michelle Obama’s speaking ability because it “shattered” the stereotype of a uneducated Black woman. Fire Thunder even made a sound affect of the shattering.
In the amidst of the laughter and light conversation, Firethunder puts Indian Country first in her own way. She’ll point out someone from a crowd, tell me how she knows the person, and says with a smile, “I know everybody.” Suddenly, she changes the mood, looks you straight in the eye and says, “We have to do better.”
Indian Country Today will stream a live coast-to-coastnewscast on election day partnering with FNX / First Nations Experience and Native Voice One. The newscast will begin at 6 p.m. Pacific / 9 p.m. Eastern.
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