A pair worthy of praise

“Remember me (remember me)
When the sun comes up in the morning sky
There I will be (there I will be)
Soaring with the eagle so high, feeling free”
“Remember Me” — Fawn Wood

A song I honestly became familiar with by mistake, I encountered Fawn Wood’s “Remember Me” when I was searching for another tune by the same title.

Immediately, I realized that it was not the correct song, but with four Indigenous children, the pow-wow style chant to open the song pulled me forward.

It is a haunting vocal line that Wood wrote in honor of Indigenous women who have suffered gender-based violence. Though she recorded the song in 2015 and has been active on many music and social media platforms, the song took off on TikTok in early 2022, leading to Wood receiving awards in 2022 for work that had been released for five-plus years.

So often, that is the case for an Indigenous woman, however. The recognition due is not bestowed in due time, and that’s even taking into account the gap of receiving recognition as a female versus doing the same work as a male.

Certainly, the state of South Dakota can claim some innovative female leaders, including Huron’s own Gladys Pyle, but that’s not who this piece is about. Many articles during women’s history month in this state will be written about those women.

Instead, I’d rather focus on women who are still struggling to break even with their fellow women, Indigenous women.

According to a 2021 study, Indigenous women make 57 cents for every dollar a white male makes. While that sounds rough, the scope may be hard to grasp. To put that number in perspective, if an average white male and an average Indigenous woman began working on Jan. 1, 2023, it would take until Nov. 30, 2024, for the Indigenous woman to equal what the white male earned in the 2023 calendar year.

That does not stop Indigenous women from impacting our society every day, including those from right within this state, even when they are pushed down and their voices are attempted to be silenced.

In 2004, Cecilia Fire Thunder captured the attention of the nation when she became the first woman elected as president of the Oglala Sioux tribe. At that point, the 58-year-old had already been through an incredible amount to make it to that point.

Fire Thunder was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation, but when she began school, she was chastised for not knowing English - her family spoke her native Lakota in the home -  and she was forbidden from speaking Lakota in school, often with violence used to enforce such rules.

Her family was part of a government relocation project in the 1960s to assist with moving reservation families to urban environments, taking Cecilia and her family to California.

She realized that many other Indigenous people in the state, through the same program, were being underserved and misdiagnosed by health care services, and that drove her to enter the medical field, eventually opening and managing clinics in California before moving back to Pine Ridge and opening centers for victims of domestic abuse and child abuse.

Her presidency was derailed as she worked independently on multiple projects, one to secure the financial foundation of the tribe, putting the tribe in better financial position than it had been in decades, and one to begin multiple women’s health clinics on the reservation in partnership with Planned Parenthood.

She was impeached for the latter, though the policies for which she advocated at that time have now been widely accepted within the tribal council since her presidency ended.

In recent years, she has become an advocate for Lakota language schools and alternative tribal-based education. She has helped to secure millions in federal grant funding for Pine Ridge Reservation schools to open that can serve children while also offering vitally needed youth counseling within the walls of the school.

Fire Thunder also worked hard to encourage traditional Lakota and tribal foods to be served at tribal schools rather than highly processed foods.

Now in her mid-70s, Cecilia Fire Thunder is still advocating for youth, for health, and for the better of all in her community. She was recognized as the 2022 Educator of the Year by the National Indian Education Association.

In the 1990s, Sarah Eagle Heart grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation with her twin sister Emma.

After an accident left their mother unable to work, she turned to alcohol, and eventually, Sarah, Emma, and their younger brother were taken in by their mother’s family.

Sarah and her sister faced significant racism at their high school, 60 miles from their home on the reservation, but rather than submit,  they chose to fight back. They fought against degrading homecoming rituals that the school had in place, citing Lakota culture and how the “rituals” were mocking and disparaging Lakota culture for entertainment.

They were called names, threatened with violence, and made to feel unsafe walking on the street.

However, a few years after the two sisters graduated, the school changed those ceremonies.

Sarah Eagle Heart has gone on to work with the Episcopal Church in America to do significant changes in its policies on Indigenous people and now in Hollywood, emphasizing accuracy in depicting Indigenous stories.

In 2019, she won an Emmy Award as a producer for Crow: The Legend, an animated short film. She’s working with Mark Ruffalo currently on a documentary titled Lakota Nation vs. the United States that is set to come out within the next year.

Throughout it all, her emphasis is on encouraging storytelling as a medium of a positive way of passing on the heritage of Indigenous people for generations to come, but only if done accurately.

With her work now in Hollywood, alongside big-time producers and directors, she is considered a go-to for exactly that — ensuring Indigenous life is depicted and reflected accurately.

Throughout their struggles, Sarah and Cecilia looked to many women within their own family and tribal community for guidance, and as a community, that is a great way to encourage our young women to find strength.

However, when those same young women are scorned because of their body type or hair or eyes or any other natural feature unique to their racial or cultural background, we’re not celebrating their beauty as a woman - we’re often causing them to doubt that beauty altogether.

So, take a moment, find more on the stories of Cecilia and Sarah, and share with your daughters/granddaughters this month to truly celebrate South Dakota’s impact on Women’s History Month!