Feminist Hero Friday: Deborah Parker

by Abaki Beck

Deborah Parker is a tribal politician, activist, and strong voice on combatting violence against indigenous women. The former Vice Chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribe of Washington state is perhaps most prominently known for her activism surrounding the Violence Against Women Act, particularly inclusion of increased protections for indigenous women living on tribal lands. She helped to bring often overlooked issues - sexual and domestic violence - in an often overlooked community - Native Americans - to the forefront of the national stage.

Before using her voice on the national level, Parker worked on the community level. While she worked for the Tulalip tribe, Parker was a great advocate for supporting youth and education. During her time, she developed two different programs: Young Mothers and the Tribal Tobacco program, both of which were culturally and tribally relevant. In the years leading up to the reauthorization of VAWA, Parker spent a great amount of time lobbying in DC, sharing her story as a survivor of child sexual abuse and using her voice as a tribal leader to create change. Most recently, she was named by Bernie Sanders to the Democratic Platform Committee.

The 2013 reauthorization of VAWA took important steps forward in increasing tribal authority in prosecuting domestic and sexual violence abusers. Previously, tribes had no authority to prosecute non-Native offenders if the crime happened on tribal land. That’s right, if a Native woman was raped on a reservation by a non-Native person, the tribe could not do anything about it. Though VAWA made an important step in changing that jurisdictional issue, there are still many issues with the law. For example, victims have to prove they have a “relationship” with their abuser - which makes it difficult to protect queer victims, who may  not be comfortable coming out, and rules out stranger violence all together. Additionally, children are not protected.  Often times, domestic violence lawyers will charge all possible crimes to see “what sticks” (since domestic violence is so difficult to prosecute), such as endangering a child. This is not possible under the current version of VAWA. Protection of children is one of the issues that Parker is most passionate about.

Deborah Parker is a community leader and national activist. Her relentless advocacy for tribal communities - and those most vulnerable - is both admirable and effective. She is deeply tied to her Tulalip roots. Today, we celebrate her as a leader not only on the national stage, but on the community level as well. We need advocates and brave voices at all levels for true justice to exist.

Watch Parker speak on the vital importance of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, prior to its passage, and learn more about VAWA and violence against Native women here.