Young Lakota: A Native American Leader Fights for Reproductive Rights. Directed by Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt. Brooklyn: Chicken & Egg Pictures, 2013. 83 minutes.

On the Divide. Directed by Leah Galant and Maya Cueva. Los Angeles: GOOD DOCS, 2021. 79 minutes.

Reviewed by Renée Monchalin

At the intersection of geography, poverty, violence, religion, colonialism, and politics, Young Lakota and On the Divide speak to the layered experiences of abortion access as a person of color in the United States. Exploring the tensions of a foreign religion that arrived with settler colonialism, coupled with colonial and assimilative policies as methods to control reproductive health and access, the films shed light on the complexity of making decisions about abortion and barriers that come with seeking one. As shared at the end of On the Divide, “Just because abortion is legal doesn’t mean that there is access to it.”

Young Lakota: A Native American Leader Fights for Reproductive Rights, explores abortion access on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation, while providing a larger picture of reproductive rights, justice, and access experienced among Indigenous communities across Turtle Island. The film is centered around Cecilia Fire Thunder, the first female President of the Oglala Sioux tribe, who fought for abortion access on the reservation in the early 2000s amidst the threat of the state of South Dakota outlawing it. Under federal law and on the sovereign territory of the Pine Ridge Reservation, Fire Thunder proposed a women’s clinic for all women, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, that would provide safe reproductive healthcare despite South Dakota’s pending law. In response to settler state policies interfering with Indigenous communities’ inherent right to their reproductive freedom, Fire Thunder states “I don’t want a bunch of white guys telling me what to do to my body. Keep your white hands off my brown body.” Fire Thunder received pushback from religious and anti-choice groups in South Dakota, in addition to the Indigenous community and the Tribal Council of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Revealing the strong influence of settler colonial religions across Turtle Island, Fire Thunder’s own community members called her an “extreme femi-nazi” and declared that she was no longer able to lead the people. The Tribal Council ended up impeaching Fire Thunder for her activism, describing her as an “embarrassment for all Native Americans” and posting signs in the community reading “Abortion is not the Indian way.”

In contrast, Sunny Clifford, an Oglala Sioux community member in support of Fire Thunder, highlights the long and deep-rooted history of the settler Catholic religion in their community while at the same time speaking to the Wounded Knee Massacre. This demonstrates the complex tensions surrounding reproductive choice: this community, despite its tradition of honoring reproductive choice, practices a settler religion that is pro-life, yet it faces historical and ongoing genocide, and, at the same time, is experiencing current realities of poverty, addiction, and violence as a result of colonization. These tensions are present in Indigenous communities throughout Turtle Island and result in pressure to procreate.

The film On the Divide explores the experiences of a Latinx community living in McAllen, Texas, situated on the border of the United States and Mexico, home to the last remaining abortion clinic in the area. In this location, the town itself acts as a metaphor for the film’s title: there is a divide between the Latinx and White community, a divide between the catholic religion and brujería, and a divide between perspectives surrounding reproductive choice. The film follows the experiences of the abortion clinic’s security guard (Rey), a clinic escort (Denisse), and a member of the pro-life church and ex-gang member (Mercedes) who is also involved with the catholic pregnancy center that opened three doors down from the clinic. The three perspectives shed light on internal tensions surrounding reproductive choice, religion, and identity with the current realities of violence, poverty, and addiction. It speaks to the judgement of the church regarding reproductive choice, with pro-life protestors harassing those at the clinic and not taking into consideration the intersectional experiences of people of color and people in low-income communities. Referring to contraception, Mercedes states, “To the Catholics, we frown upon birth control. Because it’s like playing God, and we don’t believe in that” (59:37); however she must access birth control at the end of the film to avoid pregnancy from an abusive partner. Similar to the film Young Lakota, On the Divide elaborates the settler state’s pro-life policy attempt to control reproductive choice, despite the lack of resources it provides to meet people’s basic needs. Halfway through the film, Denisse states, “To have our state run by people who cannot support reproductive health, it’s frustrating. You’re not talking about life because if you were, you’d be pushing for a lot of things to continue life, like food stamps, like Medicaid, like helping people still living in the laterals here” (31:59). As the film ends with its three protagonists speaking pro-choice beliefs, On the Divide, as well as Young Lakota, demonstrates that access to abortion is not a black-and-white issue for many communities. To think about reproductive justice, freedom and having access to safe abortion services, it is critical to recognize the cyclical intersections of geography, poverty, violence, religion, colonialism, and politics.

While the films were made almost a decade apart and in different parts of the country, both provide excellent examples of the complexities around abortion access. I would suggest that educators assign these films in their classrooms either as complementary to readings and/or screening one in the classroom and assigning another for students to watch on their own time due to their cumulative run time. Additionally, as the films do not provide much context on colonialism and/or racism, it is important that educators fill in the gaps with background materials to avoid reproducing stereotypes. Below I have provided suggested reading for consideration.

Suggested Readings

Anderson, Kim. 2003. “Vital Signs: Reading Colonialism in Contemporary Adolescent Family Planning.” In Strong Women Stories: Native Vision and Community Survival, edited by Kim Anderson and Bonita Lawrence, 173-90. Toronto: Sumach Press.

Anderson Kim. 2011. Life Stages and Native Women: Memory, Teachings, and Story Medicine. Winnipeg, Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press.

Arnold, Shaye Beverly. 2014. “Reproductive Rights Denied: The Hyde Amendment and Access to Abortion for Native American Women Using Indian Health Service Facilities.” American Journal of Public Health 104, no. 10 (October): 1892-93.

Baldy, Cutcha Risling. 2018. We Are Dancing for You: Native Feminisms and the Revitalization of Women’s Coming-of-Age Ceremonies. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Burnett Kristin. 2017. “Different Histories: Reproduction, Colonialism, and Treaty 7 Communities in Southern Alberta, 1880–1940.” In Abortion: History, Politics, and Reproductive Justice after Morgentaler, edited by Shannon Stettner, Kristin Burnett, and Travis Hay, 35–54. Vancouver, British Columbia: UBC Press.

Leyser-Whalen, Ophra, Luis Torres, and Brianna Gonzales, 2021. "Revealing Economic and Racial Injustices: Demographics of Abortion Fund Callers on the U.S.–Mexico Border." Women's Reproductive Health 8, no. 3 (2021): 188-202.

Stote, Karen. 2015. An Act of Genocide: Colonialism and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing.

Theobald, Brianna. 2019. Reproduction on the Reservation: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Colonialism in the Long Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Renée Monchalin ( is an assistant professor in the School of Public Health and Social Policy at the University of Victoria, Canada. Renée holds a PhD in public health science from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. Her current areas of research include culturally safe health service access with a specific focus on abortion access, Métis People’s health at the intersections, public health feminist praxis, qualitative and decolonizing methodologies, and community-based participatory research. Renée’s current research involves exploring experiences with abortion access among Indigenous women, as well as two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual, plus (LGBTQIA+) people in Canada.