Sunny Clifford, on the rez, in Indian Relay.
[photo by Diego Siragna]
Sunny Clifford is the heart of Young Lakota, alongside her sister Serena and friend and neighbor Brandon Ferguson. Set on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the film captures a firestorm of political upheaval there during a relatively short span of time, when outspoken tribal president Cecelia Fire Thunder fought to bring a Planned Parenthood clinic to the reservation during a time when their state was trying to pass the nation’s strictest abortion ban. As we see in Young Lakota, an election to recall Fire Thunder pushed Sunny to become more and more politically engaged.

The film by Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt makes its national broadcast premiere on Independent Lens on PBS Monday, November 25 at 10 PM (check local listings), as part of our tribute to Native American Heritage Month. We caught up with Sunny this past week to find out what she’s been up to since the filming of Young Lakota, and to learn about how the experience changed her.

IL: Could you give people an update on your life since the film was made — why did you decide to move to Southern California? Have you returned to visit South Dakota again, and if so how does it seem to you now that you’ve been traveling?

Sunny Clifford: Since the film was made I have graduated from college with a BA in Literature and Communications, which makes me a first generation college graduate. I studied abroad and traveled to London, Paris, and Oxford. I worked for the National Parks Service at Pipestone National Monument for a season as a Visitor Use Assistant. I also worked for the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority (tribal park service on the Pine Ridge Reservation) at the White River Visitor Center for three summer seasons. I’ve found that I really enjoy teaching people about where I am from in regards to culture and history. I recently married a man in the Marine Corps; we are stationed at Camp Pendleton, and expecting our first child in February.

Sunny Clifford, today.
Sunny Clifford, today. [photo by Wen-You Cai]
When you were growing up, how much knowledge did you have of some of the things that had happened at Pine Ridge Oglala Reservation, especially the relatively recent events in the ’70s?

When I was growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the history I learned in school was not relevant to the location. My mom never told me anything about it either. I only learned I was Indian when I was in the first grade. At the time we lived in Escondido, California. I remember coming home from school and telling my mom how we played cowboys and Indians. It was then she told me we were from a reservation and I was a tribal member and we had our own language. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more. I have never turned back on that interest.

Not long after that discovery, we moved back to the reservation. We never discussed the events that happened in the ’70s. Of course, I only attended grade school on the reservation. I went to high school off the reservation, out of state, at boarding schools. I also attended college out of state, but graduated from the tribal college on the rez. Growing up I was an avid reader and found I could teach myself about history relevant to me by reading books.

When I was about twelve years old I picked up Lakota Woman by Mary Brave Bird and she turned my world upside down. I had no idea about all the violence that happened during the ‘70s and before on the reservation. I pressed my mom for information, but she would never tell me much. She did tell me a horrific story about her friend being raped and murdered. I stopped asking her questions about that time because it was hard for her to tell me the story. I also read other books about Lakota culture such as Fools Crow and Black Elk Speaks. I am forever appreciative to those who’ve left us but who shared their knowledge through literature and media.

I know you’re on Twitter; do you use it as a tool for social advocacy? How do you think social media tools like that have changed the landscape even since the debate in South Dakota?

I am on Twitter and I love sharing issues relevant to indigenous culture. When I worked at the visitor center on the reservation I taught people about the Pine Ridge Reservation and also about the history the U.S doesn’t teach in its schools, the genocide of the American Indians. I used to get asked all sorts of questions. I always kept in mind “no question is a dumb question,” and was that thought challenged! The most cringe-worthy questions and statements I’ve been faced with were: “Where are all the Indians? I want to see a real Indian.”(I didn’t count because I was in uniform and not wearing feathers and beads and whatnot). “Do you guys still live in tipis?” It’s a given questions like that would be asked by Americans because that history is hardly taught in their schools. If you really want to know where all the Indians are, look on Twitter and Facebook.

Social media tools have amplified not only my voice, but the voices of others from all nations. Over a year ago I started a petition on demanding access to emergency contraception for American Indians who utilize Indian Health Services [IHS]. That petition has garnered over 100,000 signatures and helped immensely in getting the word out about the injustices many Native women face in their own lands. I learned that Plan B was supposed to be available over the counter from the Native Women’s Health and Education Resource Center. I had no idea that IHS even carried emergency contraception, let alone that it was available over the counter. So one day I decided to call my local clinic in Kyle (South Dakota) and ask for Plan B. It was a Friday and when I called I was told I needed a prescription from a midwife (it was her day off). Then they told me to go to Wanblee Health Center, about 40 miles away, or Pine Ridge Hospital, about 60 miles away. I was frustrated. I didn’t have a car, let alone gas money to get there.

Thankfully, I didn’t need the pill, but imagining a woman who did set my nerves on fire, hence the petition. So I believe in the power of social media. The power of media in general helps form what and how people think; social media puts that power in the individuals’ hands.

Do you see yourself getting involved with politics more officiallyeither as a candidate or to work on someone’s campaign? Would you return to the reservation to run for office?

I know if I want to see change, I must do something about it. Across the nation, bills are constantly being submitted regarding a woman’s right to choose. I believe in order for these legal assaults against women’s bodies to cease, we must infiltrate the law. We need more women in Congress; we need more women in politics, specifically I feel we need more women who believe in reproductive justice in Congress. I play with the idea of running for office not only for tribal council, but for state congress as well. I am in California right now, but my heart is in South Dakota. I think there is a lot of room for social change on the reservation as well as in the state. I’m not old enough right now to run for tribal council. I’ll give that a few years.

What has been your family’s reaction to the film after seeing it? 

I really don’t know their reactions personally; I mean, I have a big family. But the ones who I do interact with are very supportive of the film, and me, which is all that matters to me.

What about your sister Serena, do you think she was changed by this experience politically too? What is she up to now?

Serena and I experienced this political storm together. I know in the beginning we were both fairly traumatized by what we saw. Our first experience with tribal council was basically watching them impeach our heroine. A lot of what happened during that time was not captured on film. One time we were standing in front of the tribal headquarters protesting the abortion ban and a council member spat at us. I’m very grateful for Serena and to be able to share this experience with her. I feel lucky to be a twin and have the bond we do, and to share similar views.

Sunny and Serena (at right) on car on the rez
Sunny and Serena (at right). [photo by Marion Lipschutz]
Are you able to maintain friendship with Brandon even after being on opposite sides of the election seen in the film?

I am a very forgiving person. Holding grudges is toxic for the soul. I can also see his side of the story and I hold nothing against Brandon. Since the filming we’ve actually become closer than we were in the beginning.

Sunny adds:

In closing, I know there are several other young people on the Pine Ridge Reservation and within other nations who are implementing social change. I would like to acknowledge those who work for their communities and thank them for their efforts. I know I am not the only person who believes they can create change. I am not the only person with a story. I let some filmmakers into my life and this is the result. Being filmed was not easy for me. I used to be really bashful. When my mom would take us to visit relatives, Serena and I would each hide behind a leg, peeking around at everybody. She’d have to push us away to go say hi and play. There were several times during filming where I’d break down and just feel unworthy of being filmed. I’d ask the filmmakers to go find someone else who was doing a lot more than me. They pushed me a lot. I can’t imagine how unnerving it must have been for them to be that push for me. Low self-esteem can kill a person. I’m thankful for Rose and Marion.  Allowing myself to be filmed has given me more confidence in who I am and has affirmed who I want to be.