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Cramer accused of tirade at American Indian meeting -- Republican congressman disputes account, but apologizes for tone

GRAND FORKS – Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., told a gathering of victim-assistance professionals from the state’s American Indian reservations in Bismarck on Tuesday that he would not feel “safe” on reservations because of new provisions in the Violence Against Women Act, according to one official who was present.

The new provisions would allow non-Indians to be tried in tribal courts, which Cramer reportedly said threatened due process rights of non-Indians and will be ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Melissa Merrick, director of the Spirit Lake Nation’s victim assistance program, posted her account of the meeting Thursday on the website Last Real Indians, and the posting quickly generated a buzz on social media.

She quoted Cramer as saying, “Tribal governments are dysfunctional. Tribal courts are dysfunctional, and how could a non-native man get a fair trial on the reservations?”

Cramer voted to reauthorize VAWA last month, one of a minority of House Republicans to support it. Originally adopted in 1994, the act as reauthorized extends protections to gay couples and Indian women. President Barack Obama signed the reauthorization March 7.

Reached while traveling near Williston, N.D., on Thursday afternoon, Cramer said the Last Real Indians posting “is not an accurate account” of his words or meaning, “but I don’t want to diminish how she (Merrick) feels about it.”

Cramer said he was trying to arrange a conversation with Merrick to apologize for the misunderstanding and the tone of his remarks.

Cramer said he was trying to explain why he had sought to “improve” the reauthorized act by addressing what he believes are constitutional flaws that are likely to bring court challenges, but that the manner of his presentation may have been inappropriate.

“We had a very frank discussion about my belief in equal protection under the law and due process,” he said. “I don’t want it (VAWA) overturned. I wanted to improve it so it doesn’t get overturned.

“I engaged in a discussion, or maybe I should say debate, that was probably more like a debate we’d have in Congress than with a group of people dedicated to helping women and children. I want to apologize to her for that.”

Another member of the Spirit Lake tribe who was in contact with Merrick on Thursday said she is aware that Cramer was trying to reach her but she is not taking his calls and did not want to comment further.

She describes herself as a survivor of violence who has worked in the field of domestic violence and sexual assault for more than four years. A member of the Spirit Lake Nation, she holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management from UND.

In her posting, Merrick said she is a member of the First Nations Women’s Alliance, the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains and the North Dakota Council on Abused Women Services.

The gathering Tuesday in Bismarck was a meeting of the North Dakota council, and it included separate presentations by members of Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s staff and Cramer.

Merrick said she and the other tribal victim-assistance directors praised the reauthorization of VAWA, which gives limited jurisdiction over non-Indian perpetrators on tribal land. That came after “a long, hard-fought battle,” she wrote, with a result “that many are grateful for.”

The tribal representatives also voiced concerns about funding for domestic violence programs and other issues while meeting with the first-term congressman.

But it was the discussion over extensions of VAWA that greatly disturbed participants in the meeting, Merrick said, and for which Cramer later said he would take responsibility.

“Cramer began what turned out to be roughly 20 minutes (of) verbal attacks directed at me and meant for all Native people,” Merrick wrote. “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.”

In his response Thursday, Cramer again apologized for engaging in a discussion “style” that may have been overly contentious and not appropriate given the setting, but he said he was warning about a constitutional challenge, not promoting one.

“I don’t believe she’s being vicious,” Cramer said. “She’s recalling what she believes she heard.”

She wrote that Cramer returned to the subject of VAWA and the authority it gives tribal courts, saying, “As a non-Native man, I do not feel secure stepping onto the reservation now.”

“Why?” Merrick said she asked the congressman. “What are you going to do?”

Cramer said, “I just don’t feel secure now,” according to her posted account.

“I told him, ‘Don’t beat up our women and you will be fine,’ ” she wrote.

The discussion continued with an exchange about where one can or cannot receive a fair trial.

“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,” Merrick wrote.

“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?’ ” she wrote.

Merrick wrote that she believes Cramer “did not come to the meeting with the intention to listen” but that he came with his own agenda.

“As a Native woman, I am part of a group that has been most victimized, more than any other demographic group,” she wrote. “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.”

Cramer said his statements were meant to underscore “my continuing point that equal protection under the law, due process of law and the idea of innocent until proven guilty are the hallmarks of the American justice system. It’s what gives us the moral authority to throw perpetrators of crimes into prison.

“But to people who are working with victims and who may be victims themselves, that may not seem like the right argument,” Cramer said. “It was probably not the right situation for that style of discussion. And how they heard what I said is not their fault.”

Article written by Chuck Haga of the Forum News Service

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