A Proud Day for Tribal Advocates of the Violence Against Women Act

VAWA is passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization passed the U.S. House on February 28 by a vote of 286 to 138. In a major victory for Indian country, it mirrored the already passed U.S. Senate provisions that allow tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians who commit violence against women and families on Indian lands.

To tribal and Native American advocates who have spent many long days and nights working through bleeding heels, seasonal sicknesses, and missed holidays with loved ones, the vote represented the end of a journey that sometimes seemed impossible.

“I’m so excited—this is overwhelming,” cried Deborah Parker, vice-chair of the Tulalip Tribes, who was out of breath and in tears immediately after the House passage.

Parker’s daze was understandable. Still catching her breath, she noted that some legal experts have said that there hasn’t been major tribal legislation that grants inherent tribal authority since the historic days of treaty times. “We’ve had other successes,” she said, “but this will have a substantial impact on our sovereign ability to govern.”

Through two Congresses, Parker experienced the first-hand battle of getting an important piece of tribal legislation passed in today’s conflict-driven capital. She regularly flew the red-eye from her home in Washington state to Washington, D.C. trying to get politicians to understand the plight that all too many Indian women and families experience. Some of the politicos wouldn’t budge in their anti-tribal positions, some wouldn’t take meetings, and others chose to ride in the backseat, not making much of an effort to secure passage.

“For so many of us, our lives got put on hold,” Parker said, tearing up, as she remembered the long haul. “It was hard to be able to celebrate life—missing family events, missing holidays…we really came to understand the meaning of sacrifice”—as do many Indian women and families impacted by violence (which Parker, too, has experienced firsthand, having been molested as a child). Federal statistics indicate that 1 in 3 Indian women will be raped in their lifetimes, and advocates like Parker believe that the inherent criminal jurisdiction power authorized to tribes in the legislation to prosecute non-Indian offenders will soon put a dent in those numbers.

The Senate agreed with Parker’s position this year on February 12, and the higher chamber last Congress also voted in the affirmative on the tribal provisions, but this was the first time that the House had taken such action. The House Republican leadership stood in the way last December when a deal that tribal leaders could accept was close, but GOP leaders finally let their guard down in late February by allowing passage of a legislative rule maneuver that would ultimately secure passage of the Senate version of the bill via a combination of moderate Republican votes and those of Democrats. All 138 Congress members who voted against it were Republican, so, like in the Senate, it was a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans who joined forces to pass the bill.

Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii), ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, said in an interview that she felt the House finally passed the tribal VAWA because the GOP is beginning to realize the importance of minorities in contemporary America. “My Republican colleagues are realizing that they cannot ignore groups of people, including Native people, and the issues that are important to them,” she said. “My colleagues are recognizing that these are the voters of the future.”

Over the years, Parker experienced her share of political posturing on this issue, saying she received some calls from some “pretty important people” asking whether she and other tribal leaders could agree to watered-down language that would grant, rather than authorize, delegated tribal jurisdiction, and that would make the process of removing a case involving a non-Indian to federal courts easier.

“No, I would say,” Parker recalled, emphatically. “We can’t let these Native women down.”

In spite of a Congress that has a bad reputation, there were plenty of congressional champions along the way from both sides of the aisle, Parker said, naming Reps. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.,) and Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) among them.

Reichert’s support stands out in Parker’s mind, since he was initially opposed to the tribal VAWA provisions. But after she visited in his office for 45 minutes, and they both shared their personal experiences with family violence, he changed his mind, and he vowed to support her effort, which he did. He is now working on anti-child abuse efforts alongside the Tulalip vice-chair, she shared.

“The process can work,” Parker said, noting that tribal advocates mobilized nationwide through grassroots efforts, social media, and traditional media as well—not to mention the strong support she received from her own tribe and national Indian organizations. “I’m so grateful to all the advocates who came together so that no Native woman has to stand alone. Men and women of all nationalities really bonded to protect Native women. How beautiful is that?”

Parker’s mind now turns to the future. In the immediate days, she has been invited to the White House, where President Barack Obama is expected to soon sign the legislation into law. And she will be working with Reichert and other Congress members on legislative ways to prevent child abuse, as well as with tribal advocates like Pamela Stearns, an elected tribal delegate to the Central Council Tlingit & Haida Indians Tribes, to secure protections for Alaska Native women—who were purposely left out of the current bills by legislators who feared advancing Native jurisdiction issues in the “last frontier” state.

“The hard work of Deborah Parker and all tribal advocates is a big win for all of us,” Stearns said, adding that she looks forward to continuing the fight with them on behalf of Alaska Native women: “I suffered at the hands of a non-Indian abuser on my homelands in Alaska. Our next task should be to move the House to include Alaska protection in the VAWA. That is something I hope to see before I leave this Earth.” 

Parker, for one, is hopeful that success can still be had on that tribal front and many others. “I believe in prayers,” she said, her breath now composed and steady. “Today, my prayers have been answered. Now we have to see what happens next.”