I always had this pity for myself because I was a woman. Then, on top of it, I’d say, well, I’m Native American. I’m at the bottom of the bottom.
Growing up in a society where more than one in three women will be raped during their lifetime, a number significantly higher than the statistics for the general population, it’s no wonder that Sunny Clifford feels this way. Sunny, a bright young Lakota woman living on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, is justifiably angered when the Christian Right tries to pass a no-exceptions statewide abortion ban. In a community where women have known how to make a medicine to terminate pregnancy for hundreds and hundreds of years, the proposed edict is not only an assault on reproductive rights, but also an affront to Native culture. Sunny joined in the fight when Cecelia Fire Thunder, first woman tribal president of the Oglala Sioux, countered the legislation by proposing to build a women’s health clinic on sovereign tribal lands, coining the battle cry, “Keep your white hands off my brown body,” and stating,
I am challenging white men right now, and white men have already done a tremendous amount of damage to my people.
Filmmakers Rose Rosenblatt and Marion Lipschutz of Incite Pictures/Cine Qua Non Inc have documented the political battle that raged between reproductive rights activists, tribal leadership and the South Dakota legislature in their new film Young Lakota. Told through the perspectives of three young, idealistic tribal members trying to make a difference in their community, it’s a story of self-discovery in the midst of political and personal upheaval. Recently, to kick off Native American Heritage Month, the filmmakers sat down with the Ms. Blog to talk about their project.
Ms. Blog: What inspired you to make this film?
Marion Lipschutz: Women’s rights and reproductive rights. We’ve been on the beat for a lot of years and it’s taken us to a lot of places on the ground across the country: Seattle, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Texas … So following that beat brought us to Pine Ridge for the first time. It was our interest in that large topic, reproductive rights and justice, as a way of understanding the world. Laws get passed, often pretty horrible laws, but they get passed without nearly enough discussion about what’s behind those laws, and they affect most often and most profoundly the people who are least likely to be at the table–i.e., Indian reservations.
How did the controversy with Cecelia Fire Thunder and the South Dakota abortion law reach your attention?
Rose Rosenblatt: We were researching another story on Pine Ridge. Choice USA turned us on to a woman there who was filing a lawsuit. We were researching it when we heard that Cecelia was getting impeached for announcing that she would build a clinic on tribal land, challenging the South Dakota ban. This other story was weakening, it didn’t look like it was going to happen, and then we heard that this was happening to Cecelia. We were there already and it was a gathering storm, so we jumped on it.
Was it difficult to get people to share their stories with you?
Lipschutz: It was actually remarkably easy. The Pine Ridge Reservation, while it has a reputation of being very remote, a lot of people pass through there. The barriers were more distance. Cecelia was 45 miles away, and so to get her up to the area where we were shooting was hard … The logistics were what made it harder than being accepted and finding people. People were very willing and open in terms of talking to us.
At the end of the film, we get to see Cecelia’s dream of a health center on tribal land realized, at least in part. What has become of the center?
Lipschutz: That center has a very sad history. They built a million-dollar [domestic violence] shelter [instead] … incorporating quite a bit of Cecelia’s vision for women’s health, but it doesn’t provide abortions. Through mismanagement or god knows what, it’s now closed. They are now working to reopen it as a place for foster kids.
So currently there are no women’s health clinic resources for Native women on the reservation?
Rosenblatt: There is IHS, which is Indian Health Services. All federally recognized tribes have Indian Health Services, but from everything that we’ve heard, it’s very difficult to get an appointment or see someone, and you certainly cannot get abortions. Women still have to go to Sioux Falls where there’s a clinic. It’s not impossible for women to get to, but nigh near. The clinic in Sioux Falls is a 6 hour drive from Pine Ridge … It’s not something that young women easily and readily think of doing, and there isn’t enough of a support system. And this is why Cecelia grabbed this idea and really wanted to run with it, and she had support within her community in Kyle, but there were too many other issues to contend with, not to mention the fact that the tribe itself was manipulated, which I think the film makes clear, by the right-to-life forces.
Is Cecelia still working to bring reproductive rights to Native women, and will the film help her reach a broader audience?
Roseblatt: We very much hope that it will. I think she will use this film as a platform. I don’t think she’s given up the fight, for sure.
This documentary takes a very personal approach, focusing on the subjects Sunny and Brandon [one of the three main characters] in particular. For you, was this film more about the political issues or about the young people in the midst of it all?
Lipschutz: It was about these young people. We wanted to do a political story from their point of view, to show the various ways that it affected them. Part of it was to show these horrible laws. It would be hard to find a place in the United States where abortion services are harder to access than on the Pine Ridge reservation. That’s because its rural, but also [because] South Dakota has a history of passing laws that not only restrict access in a real practical way, but create a climate where psychological access is restricted … I think we were around during a real shift that’s been happening in Indian Country and there was a lot of tension. You see that a lot in places where revolutionary leadership came in, and some of it wound up more corrupt and some of it not.
Young Lakota airs on PBS November 25 as part of the Women and Girls Lead Initiative and Native American Heritage Month. Both the shorter television version and a longer version will be available on DVD soon after. For more information, visit the Incite Pictures website.
Photo of Rose Rosenblatt and Marion Lipschutz from Incite-pictures.com by Dawn Porter; other images courtesy of Incite Pictures and Buffalo Nickel Creative.