PINE RIDGE, S.D.— Political life has been tense for Cecelia Fire Thunder since a little over a year ago, when she defeated Russell Means to become the top leader of the Oglala Sioux tribe, often remembered for its male leaders of long ago, men like Crazy Horse and Red Cloud.
Mr. Means, an American Indian activist and actor, challenged Ms. Fire Thunder's election in a federal lawsuit. Months later came the calls from some tribe members for her impeachment, amid complaints she had unilaterally made questionable financial choices and ignored the wishes of respected elders.
The Tribal Council voted in December to drop the impeachment complaint and keep Ms. Fire Thunder, but by then she and many of her supporters had come to believe that her sex was really at the root of so much turmoil. Though some disagree with Ms. Fire Thunder's assertion of bias, she stands as an illustration of the shifting role American Indian women are playing in tribal governments.
Ms. Fire Thunder is the first woman to be elected president here on Pine Ridge, the country's second largest reservation in land area, and one of a growing group of women Indian leaders. Since 1999, at least 11 leaders, including Ms. Fire Thunder, have become the first women elected to the top post on their tribes' governing councils.