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Warrior Women
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A teenage Marcella Gilbert and others listen at a gathering.
A teenage Marcella Gilbert and others listen at a gathering.

A scene in Warrior Women follows Madonna Thunder Hawk, well into her 70s, sprinting up aluminum bleachers at a sunny outdoor stadium in Eagle Butte. “I do this mainly for myself,” says Thunder Hawk, catching her breath but always in motion. “If you’re not physically able to do community work – hey, get on the couch, grab the remote. Then complain and whine about politics and stuff. That’s why I do it. The only thing I’m running against is myself.”

It’s a scene to which film festival audiences, from California to New York, universally respond, says the film’s co-director and producer, Elizabeth Castle. “Every once in a while, you need to feel this scorching effect of Madonna Thunder Hawk being herself,” says Castle. “But that scene has so many things you can take from it.”

Thunder Hawk, an Oohenumpa Lakota enrolled in the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, has been scorching, or fighting for what she believes, since early days. As a young boarding school student, she barricaded herself in a dorm room in solidarity with her sister, Mabel Ann Eagle Hunter, who had taken ill. Thunder Hawk refused to unlock the door unless school officials informed their mother that Mabel was sick.

Since that initial sororal sit-in, Thunder Hawk has been organizing her tiospaye (extended family) to advance self-determination and reclaim community for American Indians throughout her lifetime. She was a central organizer at occupations most emblematic of the American Indian Movement (AIM), including the takeover of Alcatraz Island in 1969, Mount Rushmore in the early 1970s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs D.C. headquarters in 1972, and Wounded Knee in 1973.

When 400 arrests at Wounded Knee resulted in 275 lengthy federal, state and tribal court cases, primarily held in neighboring states in pursuit of fairer trials, Thunder Hawk worked with the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee to support the imprisoned and their families. From this evolved the We Will Remember Survival School, an all-ages alternative school established by Thunder Hawk and Lorelei DeCora in Pine Ridge. Its pedagogy aimed to undo the “kill the Indian, save the man” damage of boarding schools by espousing three main subjects: natural resources, legal rights, and spirituality, as Thunder Hawk’s niece Lakota Harden relates in the film.

Thunder Hawk’s daughter Marcella Gilbert, along with Harden and several dozen kids, attended survival school under the forthright tutelage of her mother. “She gave us a lot of responsibility,” says Gilbert. “She’d say, ‘you guys are responsible for taking care of yourselves and knowing what’s going on.’ She didn’t mess around. She was fun, too, but whenever we gathered or traveled to other AIM houses in California or wherever, we knew we had to make coffee for the elders, clean the bathrooms, do the dishes. We didn’t just sit around and hang out.”

Gilbert, who has a Master’s degree in nutrition and works as a community development field specialist on the Cheyenne River Reservation, remembers her mother organizing and tending to the community wherever they were. “She managed the kitchen to make sure we had enough food and people were fed,” says Gilbert. “She was always bringing home babies, taking care of kids, protecting them and providing for them. There’s a place in her heart for young people.”

The film touches on Thunder Hawk’s sustained engrossment in what she and Gilbert call “the movement” and the impact her mother’s consuming community work had on her. “I treasure those years and the education I got from the American Indian Movement, because it was like one big family,” says Gilbert. “But I also saw the struggles my family went through because, how do you take on these very important issues, but keep a roof over your head and pay the bills? Something had to fall to the wayside. I mention in the film that I was a good athlete, but my family wasn’t around to support that. It could have changed my life in some way, possibly.”

At 17, Gilbert traveled to Geneva, Switzerland as a delegate to the International Indian Treaty Council. In 2015, Gilbert returned as an organizer of a follow-up U.N. indigenous peoples’ symposium, which is captured in the film. As she grew into adulthood, Gilbert had to reckon, like many children of prominent parents, the expectations born of her bloodline. “One of the pressures I grew up with being a child of an activist is when you have a strong woman like Madonna as your mother, everybody automatically assumes you’re as strong as her and can fix whatever problems they have,” says Gilbert. “The pressure to be a super-duper activist was too heavy for me, so I thought, ‘well, what can I do?’ I can focus on my kids, give them the stability and attention maybe I wasn’t able to get because of the timing at the height of the American Indian Movement.”

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The intimacy of filming Warrior Women also asked Gilbert to reach beyond a zone of comfort. “There were times I was like, ugh, I don’t want to do this,” says Gilbert. “But my mom always said, ‘this isn’t about you. We want to be able to share it with people who can use it to help themselves and their people.’ And our story is one of many. Many families like ours went through the 60s and 70s of the American Indian Movement and we’re just one.”

Warrior Women is one of the first projects about the Red Power movement that redirects the camera from well-known AIM members like Russell Means and Dennis Banks to female organizers like Thunder Hawk. Thunder Hawk says the media attention lavished on the men was a reflex of the press and not reflective of the early movement in the Dakotas. “We didn’t have that separation in thinking that people assume we did,” says Thunder Hawk. “We were a small, core group. We went out to communities and talked to people, elders, grandmothers, who no one else was listening to. Russell Means, who happened to be my blood relative, my brother, he and I were raised by a grandmother who taught us to get everybody’s opinion. You don’t stand above anybody. But the press in those days was male dominated.”

According to Thunder Hawk, AIM learned to use the media’s fixation on the men to their advantage. “They were never our friends and we knew that, but any press was better than none. The whole world was against us, including tribal government. But the press were the ones who separated out the male leadership.”

In 1974, Thunder Hawk, DeCora, Harden, Phyllis Young, Janet McCloud and other women from AIM established Women of All Red Nations (WARN) in Rapid City. WARN took on a variety of issues, including raising awareness of forced sterilization of Indian women and adoption of Indian children. WARN worked with the School of Mines to study and report the correlation between high numbers of birth defects, miscarriages, and cancer and uranium mining contamination in Pine Ridge water sources. Thunder Hawk also worked with the Black Hills Alliance, a contingent of “cowboys and Indians” who united against Union Carbide’s proposed uranium mining.

Warrior Women grew out of oral histories Castle started gathering from Thunder Hawk and her cohorts 20 years ago as part of her dissertation research. Oklahoma filmmaker Christina King (Creek/Seminole/ Sac & Fox) came on board in 2010. The film abounds with archival footage, including Thunder Hawk and Gilbert at survival school and rallies, painstakingly pieced together from documentaries and unshown footage shot by filmmakers like Volin-based Charles Nauman and Wakonda’s Doug and Judy Sharples. “It was a private investigating type of endeavor,” says Castle. “Network news went straight for the male Native spokesperson. In some cases, I was lucky to find notes attached that just said, ‘Indian Woman.’” With the Warrior Women Oral History Project, Castle has worked with Thunder Hawk and Gilbert to interview female activists who “would say they were happy to get work done and not have to perform for the cameras,” says Castle. “I see it as an ongoing obligation, to show the community-based, indigenous models that are often communicated as not as important.” Meanwhile, she wants the website and project “to expand as a really powerful, active archive.”

Documentation can take a backseat when community-building efforts are on-going and the workers are otherwise engaged, says Gilbert. “There’s this idea that it’s not done yet,” says Gilbert. “Mainly because we don’t have time and there’s still a lot of work to do.”

The film follows Thunder Hawk and Gilbert to Standing Rock, where they opposed the Dakota XL Pipeline for several months, a moment Thunder Hawk says she is thrilled to have witnessed. “A lot of our contemporaries are gone. My sister Mabel and I would wake up in the mornings and see the smoke trails from the camps, and we’d say, ‘we lived to see it.’ This was a united struggle. Even tribal governments, even families who say they wished they’d been at Wounded Knee, relatives from Central and South America, the Arctic. It was just amazing, amazing.” Thunder Hawk says she also felt fortunate to witness the inauguration of Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, the first Native American women elected to the U.S. Congress in its 116-year history.

Today from her home on Cheyenne River, Thunder Hawk is tribal liaison for the Lakota People’s Law Project. She’s also part of a group of grandmothers who address child welfare issues. Much of their organizing these days is conducted via social media. “Are you kidding?” says Thunder Hawk. “I love Facebook. That’s how I keep track of what’s going in with the rest of the world and the young people. No drama, no personal selfies and that crap. That’s how we operate here with all of us elderly grandmas. We’re all on Facebook, we all have cell phones. We keep track of each other and what’s going on.”

Warrior Women premieres Monday, February 25, 8pm (7 MT) on SDPB1. More information at WarriorWomen.org.