PINE RIDGE, S.D. — Oglala Sioux President Cecilia Fire Thunder, accused of
mortgaging tribal land and of abusing elders and a council member, was
given a vote of confidence by the tribal council, which acted as a jury in
her impeachment hearing on Dec. 30.
On a 12 — 5 vote, the complaint was dismissed; and by unanimous consent of
the council, she was reinstated with full power of the office of president.
The original complaint accused Fire Thunder of perjury, trespassing, fraud,
disloyalty and assault and battery. The complaint, filed in October, asked
for her impeachment and removal from office.
At the heart of the complaint is a $38 million loan acquired from the
Shakopee Mdewakanton (Dakota) Sioux Community to pay off immediate debt and
begin work on expansion of the tribal casino. Opponents claimed Fire
Thunder did not consider tribal members’ wishes when negotiating the loan.
Under current tribal law, Fire Thunder — the first woman to sit at the
head of the tribal nation — was suspended for 20 days pending a hearing;
but with frequent delays and postponements, she was actually out of office
for 66 days.
William Birdnecklace Tate, who originally brought the complaint, did not
have a chance to present his case as it was dismissed before a hearing ever
took place. Tate started his presentation with objections, including one
that asked for a council member’s removal from participation in the hearing
because that council member allegedly was convicted of a felony. After a
lengthy discussion on the issue, the council cited the tribal constitution
and voted to allow the council member to set in on the impeachment hearing.
Tate’s actions were called “stall tactics.” Craig Dillon, LaCreek District
councilman, became frustrated with those tactics and moved that the
complaint against Fire Thunder be dismissed. His motion, made early in the
proceeding, negated the need for a long list of witnesses from both sides
to be heard.
Another complaint, filed by Councilman Juanita Sherich, was also dismissed.
She withdrew her complaint that claimed Fire Thunder threatened her with
bodily harm. Sherich did not ask for removal from office in her complaint.
A large, supportive crowd stood and listened as Fire Thunder spoke briefly
“The person filing the complaint needs to bring proof. The complaint has no
“If I ever violated my oath of office, I would leave,” Fire Thunder said.
At times her words were muffled with emotion.
Although a hearing did not take place, as was requested by some members of
the council and Tate, some elders were allowed to speak. Most of them were
against Fire Thunder.
The Indian Reorganization Act form of government, care of the elderly and
children, and a few other issues not related to the case were discussed by
elders, most of who spoke in their native language.
One of Fire Thunder’s strongest opponents told her that what she did was
against tribal sovereignty.
“People were never given the right to speak. You didn’t believe in the
treaties. You haven’t looked out for our people,” elder Anita Ecoffey said
to Fire Thunder.
Myrna Whiteface Youngbear said she came to present her complaints. “The
elderly were attacked by Cecilia at the radio station [KILI]. The elderly
are concerned with the $38 million loan.”
The $38 million loan surfaced in most of the elders’ speeches. The council
approved the loan with the Shakopee Community on a 14 for and four against
vote. What angered the elders and others was what they perceived as a
leverage of the tribal land to secure the loan.
Fire Thunder frequently defended the loan and said the land was not
leveraged, but the revenue from tribal land would be adequate to pay for
“We want our grandchildren to walk on that land,” said elder Marie Randall.
Randall accused the council of dipping into the $38 million to put into
their own pockets, an allegation that had not before been raised.
“If she opens that bag of money so they [the council] can go to Reno and
Las Vegas and go to rodeos, they won’t get rid of her. We have to create
our own elderly government,” Randall said.
What began in October with the impeachment complaint may have ignited a
firestorm of change for the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Tribal council members came
forward to speak of curtailing corruption they claimed had permeated the
council. They stood to voice the often-heard mantra of accountability to
the people with more communication and work with the districts.
Will Peters, councilman from Pine Ridge District, was the most vocal about
corruption. After the vote to dismiss the complaint, which he voted
against, he warned Fire Thunder about listening to the wrong people: the
people, he said, that were corrupt.
“In the beginning I thought we would stamp out corruption. This is a people
issue; it shouldn’t be decided by us.
“She [Fire Thunder] walked into a government system of corruption and
dysfunction. She did some acts and cover-ups, but she was not alone,”
Peters also, at the beginning of the proceeding, introduced a complaint
that asked for the impeachment and removal of Councilman Walt Big Crow. He
asked that Big Crow be removed because he acted alone to negotiate a
settlement with a private construction company that is the general
contractor at the tribe’s Prairie Wind Casino. The company, C&W
Construction, filed a claim for more than $1 million that it asserts the
tribe owes for preliminary work.
One tribal attorney resigned over the informal arbitration process. What is
wanted, Peters and others argue, is formal arbitration. An Environmental
Protection Agency report said the environmental work done by the company
Fire Thunder, Peters claims, is directly involved because he alleges that
Big Crow went directly to Fire Thunder with an informal arbitration
A hearing for Big Crow is set for the first part of the new year.
Laundry was hung out to dry on Dec. 30. It may not all have dried, but a
good part of it did. In true Lakota tradition, disagreements and hatreds
eventually eroded. Most people who attended the hearing expected a
contentious battle with animosity and hatred. What ended up was almost a
Peters told Fire Thunder to make amends to Sherich and to the elders. But
that was all planned by Fire Thunder in advance: after the proceeding, she
presented the elders, whom she allegedly offended, with star quilts and
presented Sherich with a star quilt as well. Sherich is Fire Thunder’s
“We didn’t get our hearing, that’s why I voted against the [dismissal
motion]; I also voted ‘no’ on the $38 million. That was for the youth, the
hungry and the elderly. This was a people’s issue,” said Lydia Bear Killer,
tribal council representative.
In Fire Thunder’s absence, Vice President Alex White Plume stepped into the
Fire Thunder said that after the 66-day hiatus, she had a lot of catch up
work to do. One of the first issues is the contractual dispute with C&W
Construction over the casino expansion project.