VAWA Victory!

February 28 marks the first day in the history of the United States when Native women living on reservations will be offered equal protection from violent criminals as most non-reservation women had since the original passage of VAWA ten years ago. The House version would have stripped the bill of protections for Native American women, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, and illegal immigrant women.

One of three Native women will be raped in her lifetime, she might be your Grandmother, your Mother, your sister, cousin, friend, neighbor, your Facebook buddy, she might be me. This is my story, too. Molested at age 6, survived my first attempted rape in elementary school, my second in my mid-thirties. The statistics don’t tell you about the fear you live with, they don’t deal with the aftermath, the reality of living with what has happened to you. It wasn’t your fault, you didn’t ask for it, you didn’t want it and, if your luck is as bad as mine, the police will tell you that you cannot press charges as it’s, “Your word against his.” How many of our women have heard this? Too many. How many of our children have lived with this kind of abuse and violence over the years? Too many.

Deborah Parker, Vice-Chair of the Tulalip Tribes Board of Directors, has been a tireless advocate for the passage of VAWA for more than two years, understanding the importance of protecting Native women and children from violence. Her efforts and courage helped put a face to the importance of passing VAWA as it first lost steam until she stepped forward and shared her own story, becoming a national warrior seeking protection for all Native women.

Parker said, “In April, 2 days before it went to vote, I was told by Senator Patty Murray’s staff that the Tribal provisions would not be included in the Senate version of VAWA. That was a pivotal moment in my life, that was the day I decided to take a strong stance on behalf of Indian women, survivors as well as the many women who are no longer with us. I met with Senator Murray, who then called for a press conference right away.” Murray told Parker she was giving her the chance to change the course of history. Senators Murray (D-Washington), Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) and Boxer (D-California) all joined Parker at the news conference. As they stood together Parker told her story and the stories of struggle of other Native women. Parker said, “I feel like I’ve been in a daze since because it’s been a struggle ever since. I have been in prayer, really for those victims of violence and sexual assault. Life is very different when you’re seeking justice on behalf of so many women; nothing seems the same until justice is served. I know there are so many women around the country who came forward to tell their story for the first time on the importance of this legislation, taking this bill from having no voice and no face to many voices and many faces.”

While Parker also traveled to the presidential inauguration, she threw her efforts into creating a network of fellow advocates, instead of enjoying the festivities she focused on speaking to congressmen, representatives, actors, literally every person she met while in D.C. left with a greater understanding of the importance of VAWA.

Parker felt that this more than a decade effort (See, "Congress, make the streets safe for Indian women, too!" by Suzan Shown Harjo) was tiring but also said, “Every conversation was VAWA, every message had to be placed in every direction because we don’t have as many advocates as others across the country. I’m thrilled that so many women across the country came to fight on our behalf, women and men, because women and men came together to fight on our behalf, including our own Native people, our voice was increased and there is so much to be grateful for. Our advocates came out strong.”

President Obama issued a statement about the passage of VAWA, “I was pleased to see the House of Representatives come together and vote to reauthorize and strengthen the Violence Against Women Act. Over more than two decades, this law has saved countless lives and transformed the way we treat victims of abuse. Renewing this bill is an important step towards making sure no one in America is forced to live in fear, and I look forward to signing it into law as soon as it hits my desk.”

With the passage of VAWA come many feelings. Shirley Jack, Tulalip, said this about the passage of VAWA, “It’s about time we’re recognized as human beings, where we can no longer be violated on our reservations without legal recourse.”

Danae Black, Spirit Lake Dakota, said, “The passage of VAWA makes me feel safe.”

English Instructor at Northwest Indian College-Tulalip Lynda Jensen, shared, “It means that my Native sisters who belong to federally recognized Tribes can start living lives that feel as secure as my own. It means the gap in race-based equality is closing. It means that as a Nation we are more connected to our humanity.”

Belinda Brown, Puyallup, had this to say, “It means to me that all men can be prosecuted regardless of where they reside…think about all the offenders and who they live next door to when they go home” (off reservation).

Women from each party voted for the passage of VAWA with the provisions, but several Republicans voted against it. The final vote was 286 to 138.

Nahale Napeahi, Colville and Hawaiian, said, “The passage of VAWA is very good to hear. I’m surprised this wasn’t passed before. I don’t get it, I really don’t. I’m seriously questioning why this wasn’t passed long before now.”

While Native people across the country would probably agree with Napeahi, the passage today of VAWA with the provisions included is a victory for the grassroots movements which have helped support the effort to protect Native women. The Idle No More movement in America, grown from its Canadian First Nations roots into our communities, has also highlighted the importance of protecting our women and helped to emphasize the need to pass VAWA. This passage is a victory for all Tribes as it strengthens our sovereignty; it strengthens our right to prosecute those who commit crimes on our Tribal lands.

Indian country has too many stories of violence against our women to tell and too many stories of men going free to offend again and again. After today, those stories will begin to be a thing of the past as our Tribes now have jurisdiction to press charges and prosecute criminals who violate our women.

Stephanie Spiering, Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, shared her thoughts on the passage of VAWA, “I feel proud that this finally got passed. I feel this should have been done a long time ago. This bill gives me more peace of mind. This bill doesn’t stop the violence; but it gives victims hope for justice.”

The passage of VAWA, with the Native provisions included, as well as provisions for protection of LGBT and undocumented immigrant women, finally gives hope for justice, hope for the protections and safety that all women deserve.

March 1 marked the first day in the history of the United States when Native women living on reservations can start feeling protected from off-reservations criminals.

Renée Roman Nose is an activist, actress, Mother, poet, artist, comedian, anthropologist, and freelance writer who currently works for Northwest Indian College as an extension site manager for the Tulalip reservation site. She has appeared in films such as Cupcakes (2012), a short by Longhouse Media; an Indian Health Service production, Native It’s Your Game (2012) and Matt McCormick’s independent film, Some Days Are Better Than Others (2010).