As the Director of Spirit Lake Victim Assistance, I am a member of three coalitions: First Nations Women’s Alliance, Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains, and North Dakota Council on Abused women Services (NDCAWS), which is the ND state coalition. All of these organizations work to end violence against women. While at the most recent state coalition membership meeting held on March 26, 2013, two of North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s staff and North Dakota Congressman Kevin Cramer were on the agenda. They were brought in to listen to the Directors of programs throughout North Dakota. We were instructed to voice our concerns, needs, and other issues that are affecting our programs. We had a lot to discuss. The recent passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), including Tribal provisions giving limited jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators, was a long, hard-fought battle that many are grateful for. The sequester was looming over all of the Directors’ heads. Senator Heitkamp’s staff were great. They listened, took notes, and asked questions. We all expressed our thanks for Senator Heitkamp’s support. Immediately following Heitkamp’s staff was North Dakota Congressman Kevin Cramer. A couple of Program Directors spoke, then I followed. Knowing that Cramer spoke out openly against the constitutionality of the Tribal Provisions in VAWA, I thanked him for his support and proceeded with my concerns including how the Tribal Sexual Assault Services Program (TSASP) was taken out of the CTAS grant solicitation that went out to Tribes. I said that our state, because of the oil boom, has been impacted negatively. I mentioned that the program in Fort Berthold, for example, has seen drastic changes.
Cramer cut me off and said, “Do you know how much Fort Berthold received in oil taxes last year?”
I calmly responded, “No, I am from Spirit Lake. We don’t have oil. We have water… from all the flooding.”
Then he began to state how many warrants were in the Standing Rock Tribal Court that haven’t been acted on.
Again I told him, “I am from Spirit Lake, I can only speak on Spirit Lake.”
After I spoke, Cramer began what turned out to be roughly 20 minutes verbal attacks directed at me and meant for all Native people. Cramer stated that indeed he did vote yes on the Violence Against Women Act, but he did not agree with the Tribal Provisions and that he was sure they would be overturned in the Supreme Court. I pointed out that the U.S. Attorney’s office just released a VAWA Tribal Provision fact sheet for the new VAWA about an hour previous.
Then Cramer said, “Well, it’s most likely going to get turned over in the Supreme Court, then well, there’s not even a legal opinion on it but it’s most assuredly coming.”
I shared that I am a survivor, and that the Tribal provisions would have benefitted my own story, and that these incidents do happen.
Cramer stated that, “Tribal Governments are dysfunctional. Tribal Courts are dysfunctional, and how could a non- Native man get a fair trial on the reservations?”
Cramer said there would be no due process. I asked him if he had ever been to the reservation.
“Yes,” he said.
I then asked, “Have you been to the Tribal Court?”
“No,” he said.
I said, “Well, that’s not fair for you to say that if you have never been there. How could you know?”
At this point, I felt uncomfortable. The tension in the room was heavy, so I stopped speaking. I looked away because the tone and condescension in his voice was very apparent. No one spoke. He asked for questions. No one spoke.
Congressman Cramer then demanded, “Tell me about Spirit Lake!”
“I know we haven’t been portrayed positively in the media lately but I can tell you that there are good people there,” I said. “There are families that are not dysfunctional. There are people who work very hard to help the children and the families of Spirit Lake. Unfortunately, that is not spotlighted in the media.”
Cramer said, “What do YOU think of the Tribal council?”
I responded to him by telling him that I have my own opinions about the Tribe’s leaders, but what I could tell him again is about the positive things that have come out of the media crisis, like the reformation of the Child Protection Team, the Multi-Disciplinary Team, the Regional Social Services Coalition, and an Interagency committee- all which I am a part of.
I said, “I can tell you I know there is change, positive change. It’s not going to happen overnight but there are people working very hard.”
Cramer then stated that he wanted to “ring the Tribal council’s neck and slam them against the wall.” This statement was made in front of a room full of people who are working to end violence. Again, he went on and on about how Tribal governments are dysfunctional, and how unconstitutional the Tribal provisions in VAWA are. At this point, the other Directors began to get up and walk out of the room. Cramer focused on how he thought a non-Native man would be treated unfairly in the Tribal Court.
He then said, “As a non-Native man, I do not feel secure stepping onto the reservation now.”
I asked, “Why? What are you going to do?”
I know full well VAWA Tribal provisions only give Tribes limited jurisdiction over adult non-Native men who commit violent crimes against our Native women. He said he “just don’t feel secure now.”
I told him, “Don’t beat up our women and you will be fine.”
I tried to tell him what VAWA covered, and he cut me off and said, “No, that’s not it.”
“You can’t tell me I will get a fair trial,” Cramer said.
“All you have to do is act right and you have nothing to worry about,” I answered.
Cramer once again went on a tirade about due process and fair trials for the non-Native perpetrators. He stated that it wasn’t fair to the Native men- that we are “protecting” the non-Native men. He said the federal system can do a better job. I asked if he knew how long the federal process took. My words were met with silence, and a smirk. I tried to pull the focus back on the victims. I told everyone, including Cramer, that I appreciated that VAWA passed with the Tribal Provisions and that I was glad for it. I implored them to remember that VAWA is meant to protect victims first, not the perpetrators.
Cramer then said, “It’s unconstitutional,” and that if he steps foot on the reservation he has to assume he won’t get a fair trial.
I said, “Why not? When I step off the reservation, I fall under the state’s jurisdiction. If I commit a crime in Bismarck, I am under their jurisdiction and have to assume their court system will give me a fair trial. Why is it any different?”
Once again, he went back to the number of warrants that weren’t acted upon on the Standing Rock Reservation. Cramer seemed frustrated. People were uncomfortable and getting up to leave.
I said, “You can talk all the hypotheticals you want, I lived it and I am thankful for the new VAWA.”
Cramer said, “I can’t get a fair trial.”
I said, “So, you’re telling me, with my brown face, that I can go anywhere small town USA and get a fair trial? Is that what you’re saying?”
After a pause he said, “I speak out about that.”
The other Native woman in the room was visibly upset, with tears in her eyes. She commented on the overrepresentation of Natives in the prison system, and that Kramer knew we [Natives] don’t always get a fair trial off the reservation.
At this point, I couldn’t even talk anymore. I was so disgusted and offended. I grabbed my phone and began to look at it. The Director then tried to redirect the conversation and politely end it. Cramer would not stop. He asked for any questions or comments, but nobody spoke. Nobody would look at him. As he got up to leave, Cramer saw how upset the other Native woman in the room was. He grabbed her without her consent, hugging her. Then he said, “I love you.”
In my opinion, Kevin Cramer is the epitome of white male privilege. He did not come to the meeting with the intention to listen. He came with his own agenda. He made threats of violence towards my Tribal leaders, spoke of how dysfunctional our people are, and focused on how unfair the Tribal Court system would treat a non-Native offender. This man represents North Dakota on a national level. There are 5 reservations in North Dakota. From the way he spoke, he cares nothing of them, and in fact seems to think we are beneath him. It is 2013. One would think racism would not be as prevalent and blatant as those 30 minutes spent with Congressman Kevin Cramer proved to be. If he is comfortable speaking so openly against natives, it frightens me to think of how he speaks of us behind closed doors.
As a native woman, I am part of a group that has been most victimized; more than any other demographic group. As a survivor, throughout my life I have been victimized by men. In his arrogance, Cramer probably doesn’t realize he just did the very same, and in front of an audience.
Melissa Merrick is the Director for Spirit Lake Victim Assistance in Fort Totten, which is located on the Spirit Lake Nation. She has been working in the field of Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault for over four years. As a survivor, Melissa knows the importance of compassionate and comprehensive victim services. Her personal healing journey has brought her to the advocacy movement where she speaks for those that cannot speak for themselves. She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration and Management from the University of North Dakota and is a member of the Spirit Lake Nation.