Far from home and flanked by U.S. senators, Deborah Parker stood before a microphone. She hadn’t planned to talk publicly about painful, personal memories.
Parker began with a greeting and ended with a thank-you, both in Lushootseed, the traditional language of her people. Between the greeting and her thanks came an impassioned plea.
Parker, 41, is the new vice chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes Board of Directors. Elected in March, she is the only woman on the current board and its youngest member. A former legislative policy analyst, she was in Washington, D.C., to work on an environmental issue.
While there, she took time to stop and say hello to Murray and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, also a Washington Democrat. “I asked, ‘How’s it going?’ And it wasn’t looking good,” Parker said Monday.
The subject of Parker’s query was the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization bill. Versions of the legislation passed recently in the Senate and House, but with critical differences. One difference spurred Parker to speak out, although before her D.C. trip that wasn’t in her plans.
“We had sent numerous emails and letters showing how important the Violence Against Women Act is with the tribal provision. Without it we don’t have anything,” Parker said Monday.
Eli Zupnick, Murray’s press secretary in Washington, D.C., said Tuesday that the Senate version passed last month on a 68-31 vote, with bipartisan support. The Republican-backed House version, which passed 222-205 May 16, removed from the bill protections for several groups, among them American Indians.
The Senate bill recognizes a tribe’s authority to prosecute Indian and non-Indian perpetrators of domestic violence, in limited circumstances and with protection for defendants’ rights, according to a statement released May 10 by Murray’s office. The House bill omits the tribal provision.
“Women in tribal communities experience domestic violence at rates far higher than the general population, and often at the hands of non-Indian men, but currently many of these domestic violence crimes go unprosecutred because tribal courts do not have jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indian defendants,” the senator’s statement said.
In her short but powerful press conference, with Murray and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., looking on, Parker revealed what she said were long-ago experiences.
“I am a Native American statistic,” she said April 26. Parker recalled that in the 1970s, as a small girl, she was “violated and attacked by a man who had no boundaries or regard for a little child’s life — my life.”
At times choking up as she spoke, Parker said that although she was very small, she clearly remembers being victimized. “I was the size of a couch cushion, a red velvet, 2-and-a-half-foot couch cushion,” she said.
Parker also shared that her “auntie” had been raped by several men who had returned to her home with her. That was in the 1980s, Parker said, and she was baby-sitting at the home. During the attack, she recalled hiding with the children in the house. “I could not save my auntie, I only heard her cries,” Parker told her audience of senators.
Parker said her aunt died young, and that none of the perpetrators in either her own violation or the attack on her aunt were ever prosecuted.
This week, Parker said she had never before shared those terrible stories.
“I have a daughter, 13 years old. I have cousins,” she said. Although her daughter was upset to hear about what her mother said happened, Parker said her daughter recently told her, “Mom, thank you for doing this for all of us girls.”
Parker hopes her words bring change. “I fought hard to go to college and study criminal justice. In the late ’90s I returned from college and began a program to help young women,” Parker said.
Earlier this year, Parker was featured in a Herald article about her work with young people on the reservation.
Besides the tribal elements, the House version stripped other protections from the original bill, including: a nondiscrimination provision to ensure victims have access to services regardless of sexual orientation; expanded protections for immigrant victims, which would have increased visas available for victims who help law enforcement investigate crimes; and a provision that would help better inform college students about school disciplinary proceedings and policies, some that protect victim confidentiality.
Zupnick said Tuesday that President Barack Obama has expressed support for the Senate version of the bill, and that he would veto the House version. “So the hope is that the House will move on this so it can be signed into law,” he said.
Having spoken about her own suffering, Parker hopes the law becomes a real tool to keep others safe.
“I’m not a loud person. But if I’m going to leave my family to go to work, I want to be effective,” she said. “As a Native American woman, not only in my tribe but in the United States, we have to speak loud.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
In her own words
Hear Deborah Parker, vice chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes board of directors, speak in Washington, D.C., about the Violence Against Women Act. Go to http://tinyurl.com/TulalipSpeech.