By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015


After 40 years in healthcare work, Cecelia Fire Thunder (Oglala Lakota) returned to school and was certified as a Lakota Language teacher. She taught as an adjunct instructor at Oglala Lakota College and is the president of the Little Wound School Board and Oglala Lakota Nation Education Coalition. In 2004, Cecelia ran for the highest office of her homeland and became the first woman president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

As an artist, Cecelia creates in her home office with an add-on work area for sewing, beading, doll-making, and other art. She resides in Martin, South Dakota.


Rummaging through thrift stores where she lived in San Diego, Cecelia found the pieces of material she needed to make dolls for the first time. At age 39, she had been away from her homeland for many years. The dolls were a way to bring her homeland to her.

Cecelia sewed and stuffed dolls made of muslin, and cut bell bottoms of old dark navy sailor pants for the dresses. Soon, she began creating traditional Plains dresses and adornments for the dolls she made. This became a journey of healing, of showing who she was as a Lakota Winyan (woman).

When Cecelia returned home to South Dakota in 1988, she won a red ribbon at the Northern Plains Tribal Arts Show with one of her dolls. It was a catalyst in her life and doll making, which she continued throughout her healthcare work and political career.

In 2017, she won a blue ribbon at the same show, a testament to her journey as an artist.

“Each stitch in the creation is a stitch in my life, making it beautiful and stronger as it is about being Lakota,” Cecelia says. “My doll-making brought me home.”


For her First Peoples Fund Cultural Capital fellowship, Cecelia is reaching out to middle and high school girls with doll-making to take them through the four stages of life that correspond with the Four Directions:


Wiyohpeyata (west) represents childhood when students choose the underdress for their doll and begin cutting and sewing by hand.

Waziyata (north) is a girl’s transition to a young woman — they select the color of wool and adornments.

Wiyohinyanpata (east) takes the student into adult womanhood with a completed dress. They cut the moccasins and bead them.

Itokagata (south) reaches the elder stage and completing the doll by putting on her belt with a knife, strike-a-light bag, choker, breastplate, shawl, and a plume. The doll’s head goes on last with her hair braided.

Cecelia explains, “The dolls tell the story of what being a Lakota Winyan represents.”