Young Lakota

6 Jan

In 2006, South Dakota passed a bill making it a felony to perform an abortion for any reason in the state. In reaction, the public petitioned for a veto referendum to nullify what was to be the nation’s harshest abortion measure in a state that already had only two clinics performing pregnancy terminations. But on the Pine Ridge reservation on the Nebraska border, six hours from the closest provider, tribal president Cecelia Fire Thunder got proactive. She announced that because Pine Ridge was a sovereign territory, if the referendum was passed, she would open an abortion clinic on reservation land. As a nurse, she had opened community-based health clinics in the past and had the expertise to get it done.

Filmmakers Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt, who are also the creators of The Education of Shelby  Young LakotaKnox (featuring our very own Abortion Gang author of the same name), were there to document the chaos that ensued, and the result is Young Lakota, which aired on PBS beginning on November 25, 2013, and throughout December. I’ll give you a few spoilers: the referendum was defeated, but Fire Thunder, the first female tribal president for the Oglala Lakota, was impeached just short of completing her two-year term. The publicly voiced reason for this was because she did not seek council approval before announcing her efforts, but others believed it was a political intimidation maneuver, and some background supports the latter claim, as she had been briefly suspended and cleared previously in an unrelated matter. The clinic never got off the ground, but the proposed site did function as a 36-bed domestic violence shelter for several years; it is no longer open. Pine Ridge has outlawed abortion on the reservation.

While the underlying story of Fire Thunder’s impeachment, the abortion ban, and the clinic are all integral pieces of the tale, the story that emerges is that of Sunny Clifford, a young Lakota woman who just recently returned home from college and finds herself in the midst of the political storm, as she transforms herself from a grocery clerk trying to find direction into a community organizer and feminist activist. Also woven into the story are Sunny’s twin sister Serena’s struggles as a single parent, and friend Brandon’s efforts to support his growing family and establish a career for himself, all within the context of maintaining their Lakota heritage. Each character is connected to the others but their paths begin to diverge and meet again as their choices and circumstances become more complicated. All three, and Fire Thunder as well, have found their way back home with the hope of making life there better, but lacked the direction to do so until the abortion ban debate began rocking the reservation.

Sunny Clifford with twin sister Serena, at Pine Ridge

Sunny Clifford with twin sister Serena, at Pine Ridge

Sunny’s development, her efforts in the campaign for the clinic, for Fire Thunder, and against the ban, feel to the viewer like watching her effort to campaign for her own autonomy and that of her people. In the film, she hypothesizes that Native American culture does not condemn abortion and that anti-choice beliefs held by some of her neighbors are the influence of white Christian colonists. In private conversation, she elaborated: “I do strongly feel that anti-choice beliefs are influenced by Christianity. Prior to contact, and even some time after but before all the policies [of the government], the woman had bodily autonomy…[at an event] someone asked the question about what and if any Lakota men had to say about this issue. Cecelia said an elder gentleman said, ‘It is the woman’s business’. And that was that.”

Cecelia Fire Thunder

Cecelia Fire Thunder

This disconnect is clear in the film – while a few residents appear unsupportive of the clinic, the public outcry is clearly manipulated by outsiders, all of whom appear to be white, most male, and all using some form of Biblical scripture to defend their position. In fact at one point, Fire Thunder directly addresses some of these protestors by saying, “Keep your white hands off of my brown body”, and she has a point. At present, one in three Native American women report being victims of sexual assault, and are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual violence than other races, but prior to colonization they were viewed as equal and autonomous in society. More than 80 percent of sex crimes on reservations are committed by non-Indian men, so they can’t be prosecuted by tribal courts. It is also worth mentioning that prior to the Pine Ridge domestic violence shelter’s closing, its beds were full and it is alleged rape reports had plummeted because police weren’t investigating. Yes, the lack of autonomy and the influence of outsiders is glaring.

Another particular poignant moment in the film, as Sunny shows the courage to speak up to a person of some celebrity in her community, is when the rapper Litefoot comes to town on his Reach the Rez tour, billed to be an effort to promote self-reliance and sustainability amongst Native Americans. Sunny asks him what he thinks of the controversy, and he offers a repetitive and condescending lecture on women as God’s miracle and suggests that women are too sacred (his word, but his definition of “sacred” appears to be “delicate”, or perhaps even “simple”) to debase themselves with the topic. She leaves angry, and in tears, realizing that his message of solidarity doesn’t apply to women.

Sunny Clifford in 2012

Sunny Clifford in 2012


Sunny Clifford is a feminist activist voice our movement needs. While every struggle for abortion access does not involve the complexities of her first foray, many of us found ourselves going through the same transformations; we may begin with one particular vague goal in search of a piece of ourselves, to learn that it’s about so much more – and we are so much more. Both Sunny and the journey she finds herself on are approachable and relatable in a way that will inspire others to keep fighting, and even to take up the fight. It’s exciting to see her growth, and to imagine what Sunny Clifford, Cecelia Fire Thunder, and other activists will achieve with Young Lakota as a platform.

Find out more about the film from PBS’ Independent Lens.

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