Published on May 29, 2012 by Amy
Cecilia Fire Thunder (born Cecilia Apple October 24, 1946) is a nurse, community health planner and tribal leader of the Oglala Sioux. On November 2, 2004, she was the first woman elected as president of the Tribe. She served until being impeached on June 29, 2006, several months short of the two-year term. The major controversy was over her effort to provide for women on the reservation needing family planning services after the South Dakota legislature banned most abortions throughout the state. The tribal council impeached her for proceeding without gaining their consensus.
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A founder of community-based health clinics while living and working in California for two decades, Fire Thunder was among founders of the Oglala Lakota Women’s Society after her return to the reservation in 1986. She serves on the National Advisory Board of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS) and has worked at a shelter for domestic abuse. She is the coordinator of the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains.
Born Cecilia Apple on October 24, 1946 on the Pine Ridge Reservation, she is the third of seven daughters of the late Stephen and Lollie (Featherman) Apple. Her father was a traditional singer and her mother a culture-keeper; the family spoke Lakota at home. Her grandparents are Frank and Theresa (Garcia) Apple and John and Mary (Ice) Featherman. Her sisters are Shirley Murphy, Mary Hawk, Dinah Apple, Carmine Red Eagle, Joanne Apple, and Wanda Apple (Wanda is deceased).
When Cecilia went to the Catholic Red Cloud Indian School, she had to speak English in class. In 1963 her family moved from the reservation to Los Angeles, California in a Bureau of Indian Affairs-sponsored urban relocation program. The BIA encouraged Native American migration to cities to take advantage of educational and job opportunities.
Apple married Ben Fire Thunder while living in Los Angeles, and they had two sons, James and John Fire Thunder. She has two granddaughters from her son John, Katie and Hannah Fire Thunder.
As a young nurse in California, Fire Thunder started community-based health clinics in Los Angeles and San Diego, learning to work in a different culture and to seek resources locally. She was able to persuade doctors from the University of Southern California and the University of California Los Angeles to donate time to the clinic.
After more than 20 years away, in 1986 Fire Thunder returned to the Pine Ridge Reservation and started work at the Bennett County Hospital. She was among the founders of the Oglala Lakota Women’s Society. From her years working as a nurse, she had learned of the physical, developmental and learning problems for children born to alcoholic mothers, and encouraged women to get preventive treatment. She serves on the National Advisory Board of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS), founded in 1990. In her work for Cangleska, Inc., a domestic violence shelter, she also dealt with women who suffered from abuse related to poverty and alcoholism on the reservation.
A Lakota native speaker, Fire Thunder has also been active in tribal efforts to recover and revive use of the Lakota language among its young people and adults. She sees use of the language as integral to their culture.
On November 2, 2004, Cecilia Fire Thunder was elected as the first female president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation to serve the two-year term. She defeated both Russell Means, notable as an activist in the American Indian Movement (AIM), and the incumbent John Yellow Bird Steele. In 2005 the tribal council suspended her, initially for 20 days, in an action that ran to 66 days. They began impeachment proceedings related to allegations that she used tribal land as collateral for a US$38 million loan from the Shakopee Tribe in Minnesota to help pay off short-term debt of the Oglala tribe that totaled $20 million; the remainder of the loan was invested for casino expansion to generate revenue. Fire Thunder said the allegations were false, and she had openly negotiated the loan as part of straightening out the tribe’s financial status. After the complaint was dismissed by the council on December 30, Fire Thunder returned to her position.
In 2005 Nebraska state officials, Attorney General and Congressman Tom Osborne, approached the OST tribal council suggesting collaboration for increased policing at Whiteclay, Nebraska, a perennial problem because of its extensive beer sales to people from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Possession and consumption of alcohol is illegal at the reservation, but alcoholism is widespread, contributing to many social and health problems. In a unique agreement, the state proposed to deputize OST police (additional staff to be hired) to patrol Whiteclay to prevent beer from being transported to the reservation. Initially the council rejected the proposal, saying the $100,000 grant would be insufficient. It later approved the measure.
In March 2006 Fire Thunder announced her intent to create a Planned Parenthood clinic on her own land, within the reservation. She was responding to the state legislature’s passage of a law banning virtually all abortions within South Dakota. She believed that her constituents needed full family planning services, and that the sovereign reservation would not be subject to state laws. In 2004 public opinion polls had shown that 68% of people surveyed in South Dakota supported options for abortions in some cases, so the new law generated controversy across the state.
Fire Thunder’s plan attracted widespread media coverage and controversy within the reservation. Some tribal members marched in protest in May 2006 against the planned clinic; others objected to the way Fire Thunder had proceeded. At their council meeting on May 31, 2006, the Oglala Sioux tribal Council suspended Fire Thunder from her duties as president, saying she had not gained their consensus before inviting Planned Parenthood to the reservation. In addition, the Council issued a ban on all abortions on tribal land.
A month after the suspension, the tribal council voted on June 29, 2006 to impeach Fire Thunder from her duties as Tribal President. They made six charges against her, notably related to the Planned Parenthood clinic, for which they said she had not gained tribal council consensus. Other charges were that Fire Thunder used the media, the U.S. Post Office and the Oglala Sioux Tribe to solicit funds for the clinic. On June 30, 2006, Alex White Plume, tribal vice-president, assumed the role of President Pro Tem, which he held until the November 2006 election.
The council and succeeding chief never organized to spend the federal grant money to support deputized police to patrol at Whiteclay, and the funds were rescinded in late 2007. During the same period, in 2006 and 2007 tribal activists held blockades on the road inside the reservation to prevent beer from being brought from Whiteclay and continued to demand action by Nebraska.
Fire Thunder challenged the impeachment decision, but was unsuccessful. As of 2010, she is the coordinator of the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains.
Because of her groundbreaking election as president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and work on women’s issues, Fire Hunter has frequently been invited to speak at universities and groups about Lakota women and her experiences, as seen in the following: