Deborah Parker, Vice Chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes, speaks on April 25, 2012. Courtesy: YouTube
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.”