My question for Congress was and has always been: why did you not protect me, or my family? Why is my life, and the life of so many other Native American women, less important?"
--Deborah Parker, vice chairwoman, Tulalip Tribes, April 25, 2012.
On April 24, Deborah Parker, vice chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes in Washington State, visited Congress regarding an environmental protection matter. She stopped by Senator Patty Murray's office and asked how the Senate reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was proceeding. Staff members informed her that despite the efforts of Senator Murray and others, provisions to protect Native American women would not be included in the bill.
Parker was devastated. She had been abused as a child and has also witnessed rape and abuse many times on the reservation. Each time the "non-Indian" perpetrator wasn't prosecuted because tribal authorities have jurisdiction only over Native Americans, and state and federal authorities were unresponsive. This is a crisis not only for the Tulalip Tribes, but also on reservations across the country, where non-Indians are permitted to commit violence against Native women with impunity.
"I don't feel people understand," Parker tells me. "On the reservation there is such a feeling of despair--it's not a matter of is it going to happen, it's when is it going to happen? Perpetrators even mock Indian women because they know they will not get prosecuted."
The statistics are indeed horrific: one in three Native women will be raped in their lifetimes; two in five are victims of domestic violence; three out of five will be physically assaulted. Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be assaulted--and more than twice as likely to be stalked--than other women in the United States. On some reservations, the murder rate of Native women is ten times the national average. According to the Indian Law Resource Center, 88 percent of these crimes are committed by non-Indians--the majority of the population residing on reservations is now non-Indian--and US attorneys are declining to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse matters referred to them.
As a result, the Department of Justice under the Obama administration proposed that VAWA reauthorization allow tribal courts to prosecute cases of domestic and dating violence, and violations of restraining orders, where a non-Indian has a clear relationship with a tribal member. It is a limited reform--it doesn't address stranger-on-stranger violence, rape or sexual assault, for example. Still, it's an important advance in addressing a situation which Parker describes as allowing non-Indians to "come on the reservation and commit heinous crimes and walk off and little to nothing occurs."
After receiving the news from Murray's staff, Parker attended her next meeting on the Hill. But she didn't finish it. She returned to Murray's office and asked to see the Senator.
Murray left the Senate floor within ten minutes and met alone with Parker, whom she has known through many years of working together on tribal issues. The moment Murray saw Parker she said, "You're it"--that Parker was the person they needed to be a spokesperson on this issue. Murray told her that she would hold a press conference the next day, and that Parker should just "tell the story that's most important to you--I want people to understand how this is affecting tribes."
On April 25, Parker told of being "one of many girls" violated and attacked as a toddler on the reservation in the 1970s, and how the man responsible was never convicted. She spoke of an occasion in the 1980s, when she hid her younger cousins while listening to the screams of her aunt who was being raped by four or five men--the perpetrators were never prosecuted. She described her realization that "the life of a Native woman was short," and consequently "fighting hard" to attend the University of Washington, where she studied criminal justice in the 1990s "so that I could be one to protect our women. However, I am only one." She asked Congress to support the new provisions in VAWA to help protect Native women: "Send a strong message across the country that violence against Native women is unlawful and it is not acceptable in any of our lands."
It was a turning point in the Senate's work on the bill. It passed that month with sixty-eight votes, including fifteen Republicans--the kind of bipartisanship that is almost unheard of these days--with the new protections for Native women, and also for undocumented immigrant women and the LGBT community.
But in May the House passed a stripped-down version of the bill that contained none of these key provisions. Only six Democrats voted for it and twenty-three Republicans opposed it. Speaker John Boehner then used a procedural maneuver to avoid reconciling with the Senate on a final VAWA bill. Five House Republicans--led by Illinois Congresswoman Judy Biggert--wrote a letter to Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor urging them to adopt the stronger Senate provisions and move to a final bill.
Yet the legislation languished--until now.
Perhaps sensing from the 2012 election results that the GOP has a serious problem when it comes to relating to women who live on this planet and in this century, Cantor is now negotiating with the Senate and Vice President Biden--who sponsored the original VAWA in 1994. Word is Cantor has relented on the provisions for the LGBT community and undocumented immigrant women. He refuses, however, to consider any provision that gives tribes any kind of criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians.
While President Obama and the Vice President have met personally with Parker and other tribal leaders--"they get it," she says--GOP leadership has so far declined. Last week, when Parker and others asked to join a meeting arranged by tribal lobbyists in DC, she says they were initially told "there wasn't enough room" and that "they would only meet with our two non-Indian lobbyists." In the end, she and two female tribal leaders were included in the discussion with Cantor's staff members.
"But why isn't GOP leadership having us at the table to have this discussion?" says Parker. "If they truly want a solution, then you sit down with the very people who this bill affects."
Still, Parker and others close to the negotiations are hopeful. Republican Representatives led by Darrell Issa and Tom Cole--a member of the Chickasaw Nation--have pushed for a compromise that allows non-Indian defendants the right to remove the case to a federal court if they can prove their rights have been violated by a local tribal court. (Issa tried to offer this proposal as an amendment when the House Judiciary Committee originally worked on the bill in the spring, but GOP leadership didn't allow a vote on it.)
Sources close to the negotiations tell me that we are now running out of time to pass this bill and that the next forty-eight hours are crucial. If the final bill isn't approved, Native American groups who have pushed for this for ten years--and steadily worked on this reauthorization for three years--will be forced to start over from scratch.
"If this doesn't pass it would be one of the worst messages we could send to Native American women," says Parker. "It would be devastating to communities all over Indian country, and would send a clear message to perpetrators. It would leave reservations wide open for continued abuse."
You can tell House Republicans to pass a VAWA that includes these protections here.