Oglala Sioux Nation President Cecilia Fire Thunder garnered national attention when she called for her tribe to push back in response to South Dakota's abortion ban. Although she uses the words "choice" and "rights" characteristic of the pro-choice movement, her compelling case for native women's access to legal abortion is Lakota-centric, grounded in powerful Lakota spiritual beliefs and their experience with sexual violence.
Fire Thunder's emergent voice—and those of the women uniting around the issue at Pine Ridge—have the potential to liberate us from the usual polarized positions on abortion. I have long waited for the moment when other perspectives could enter the debate, and I am as encouraged as I have ever been.
I bring my voice to this discussion not because I am a scholar of women's or feminist issues. I am not. But I am Dakota, cultural kin to the Lakota, and I share their concerns. I want to tend the fire of a conversation that I hope brings a more thoughtful, human response—especially in Indian Country—to abortion.
In the Pine Ridge community, this response must simultaneously reflect the important traditional values and the socio-economic reality of the Oglala Lakota people. Their task is not easy. Applying traditional values to greatly changed social circumstances in a way that will work for Lakota today is a deeply intellectual and political exercise. And it represents a profound expansion of Lakota sovereignty.
For myself, as a Dakota who does not subscribe to certain religious teachings but who does believe in the sacredness of life, my moral and political response to terminating pregnancy is neither pro-choice nor pro-life.
My Dakota mother and great-grandmother emphasized the powerful potential of my body to bear children. I was taught that a child is sacred. But I was also taught that an unwanted pregnancy should be assiduously avoided through "safe sex" practices and, when I was younger, abstinence.
My mother and great-grandmother never used the words "choice" or "rights." They spoke of "power" and "responsibility." They made it clear that an unwanted pregnancy at a young age would make my life difficult. Given that a child is sacred, getting pregnant could not be "immoral," but it would be irresponsible. Yet I did not doubt that the material and moral support of multiple generations of women would be available to me in the case of such an unfortunate event, and that the child would be loved.
The word "rape" never passed my mother and great-grandmother's lips. It is not that they were naïve to the potential for sexual violence; my family had enough of that over generations of colonization. But in our way of believing, to acknowledge the possibility of sexual violence might set spiritual mechanics in motion. How one narrates the world shapes that world, so my mother and great-grandmother left certain things unsaid. They assumed that I would have the space and guidance to be responsible to myself, to that child, to my family and community, and to God or the Creator for the power inherent in my body.
Fire Thunder made headlines when she asserted that the Lakota have always had ways of terminating pregnancy, and that her proposed abortion clinic was therefore not incompatible with tradition. However, the availability of natural herbal methods is not synonymous with a pro-choice position. Responsibility, the core value passed on to me, includes aspects of "choice," but these are integrated with an ethos that values the individual within a network of living and spiritual kin. In this light, one should consider how "responsibility" to kin and community might be served by terminating pregnancy, and how that responsibility is weighed against the sacred child.
Fire Thunder's actions fueled much discussion at Pine Ridge. While some on the tribal council rushed to eject her from office and ban abortion on the reservation, a group of Lakota women did something more productive. They formed a board to organize the Sacred Choices Wellness Center, dedicated to providing comprehensive medical care and reproductive options for women on the reservation.
Certainly, Oglala Lakota women hold diverse perspectives on tradition and terminating pregnancy. But what is most important about this center, and so different from the two established national abortion platforms, is that these women are organizing on Lakota cultural and regulatory ground. While they agree to respect the decision-making authority of elected tribal leaders, they also enact what scholars call "cultural sovereignty." Core traditional values inform their response to the sexual violence once associated with colonization, and the women are taking charge of the issue in a way that puts on notice those who are not governing in women's best interest. In doing so, they act on and reinforce the power of their traditional gendered roles to influence community law.
They also assert another traditional value: Woman-only spaces build women's strength. While sexual violence is a problem for the entire community to tackle, and while men will no doubt work at the center and be welcome as patients, the notion that women's bodies are women's business is demonstrated in Lakota women's activism. At the same time, Fire Thunder and others call for Lakota men to take action, to recognize their own or their relatives' culpability in sexual violence, and to work to stop that violence.
Cecilia Fire Thunder set an important example in speaking out against legislation that fails to consider the cultural values, social realities, and political authorities of tribes in the state. On the other hand, the would-be pro-choice allies of Fire Thunder and clinic organizers should understand that Lakota perspectives on abortion are nuanced. They are at once spiritual, historical and political in ways that are not synonymous with the established platforms. As especially Lakota women join together in conversation and practical action around this divisive issue, they are an important example for all of us, within and without Indian Country.
Kim TallBear is an assistant professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University in Tempe. She is enrolled in the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, Lake Traverse Reservation, South Dakota. She spent much of her childhood on the Flandreau Santee Sioux Reservation.
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