TULALIP, Wash. -- For years she walked in silent shame, carrying the burden of a sexual assault she suffered at just three years old. As she grew older, Deborah Parker realized the shame she felt actually belonged to a justice system that has failed countless Native women.
"One woman harmed is too many," she said from the Tulalip Indian Reservation Tuesday. "One child harmed is far too many."
Parker worked as a counselor on the reservation for three years. She heard endless stories of women being raped, beaten and abused by men who were never prosecuted because they weren't Native American.
"The great shame is that those perpetrators not only abuse one victim, but two or three. Sometimes up to hundreds. These are serial rapists who exist and live among our Native people," said Parker, who is now vice-chair of the Tulalip.
A U.S. Supreme Court case from 1978 prohibited tribes from prosecuting non-tribal members for crimes like domestic violence and sexual abuse. For decades predators had their run of some reservations, but not anymore.
Despite advice to the contrary, Parker refused to keep quiet. In 2012 she urged Congress to pass the Violence Against Women Act, which would allow Native police to arrest and courts to prosecute non-tribal members for certain crimes. It was a draining two year battle, and one Parker nearly lost. Some senators didn't want to include Native women in the protected class to be covered by the new law.
It was then that Parker took the pain of her past and turned it into power. She told politicians her story, the first time she had ever shared it publicly. She stood at a podium, in the glare of camera lights, and spoke in heartbreaking detail about the three-year-old girl who was assaulted by a grown man, as she listened to a relative get raped in a nearby room.
"Somehow I found the strength to say it's not okay to harm our girls. It's not okay to rape our women. All women should be protected," said Parker.
60% of Native women admit to having been the victim of sexual abuse at some point in their lifetime. The murder rate for Native women is 10 times higher than the national average.
The new powers just passed by Congress allowing the arrest and prosecution of non-tribal members on three reservations take effect next week. It is a pilot project Parker hopes will soon spread across the country.
For now, she pledges to continue to fight for the women of her tribe so they don't follow in the painful path of victimhood.