GRAND FORKS -- The Spirit Lake Tribal Council issued a statement Friday harshly criticizing comments attributed earlier this week to Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., regarding the protection of women and children on the reservation, including that he reportedly wanted to "ring the Tribal Council's neck and slam them against the wall."
Also today, Melisa Merrick, director of the Spirit Lake Victim Assistance program and author of the website article that reported Cramer's comments, issued a copy of a letter she has sent to Cramer, in which she says she is "still stunned and outraged by what we experienced" in the meeting she and other tribal victim assistance professionals had with him in Bismarck on Tuesday.
In its statement, the Spirit Lake council said Cramer's remarks "clearly stem from a lack of understanding" of the recently reauthorized Violence Against Women Act, which the council said "includes safeguards that address the concerns the congressman expressed with regard to due process."
The council statement noted the "ring the Tribal Council's neck" comment attributed to Cramer and said the tribe "takes these threats of violence seriously and finds them particularly inappropriate given the audience Congressman Cramer was addressing."
"A threat of violence is exactly the wrong way to send a message," the statement continued. "His comments are beneath the dignity of his office and the relationship that his government has with the first Nations of this country, who are among his constituents. The tribe is concerned that the congressman's intemperate statements reflect his negative views of his tribal constituents as a whole."
The council said it "will be launching a full investigation on this incident."
The quotes attributed to Cramer appeared in a lengthy posting on the website Last Real Indians by Merrick. They were allegedly made during a meeting Cramer had in Bismarck on Tuesday with victim assistance professionals from several reservations, including Merrick.
After a discussion concerning the recently reauthorized Violence Against Women Act and Cramer's concerns about potential constitutional problems with the act's new tribal provisions, the congressman expressed frustration over Spirit Lake's handling of the ongoing child protection issue.
Merrick wrote, "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.' "
Cramer's Washington, D.C., office was closed in observance of Good Friday, and efforts to reach him for comment on the council's statement were unsuccessful.
Before the council acted, Cramer issued a statement this morning to at least one national media site, the Huffington Post, echoing the apology he offered Thursday for the "tone and rhetoric" of his comments.
The statement reads in part, "I am quite open about my passion regarding helping those within our society that are exposed to violence. It is my understanding that certain statements I recently made regarding my frustrations with VAWA were misunderstood. This may have been the result of my tone and rhetoric, better suited for active debate in Congress rather than in addressing the protectors of our most vulnerable citizens. I apologize, and welcome future discussion to address my meaning, and to further our common cause."
Merrick said in her letter to Cramer released today she "stand(s) by every word" in her posting on the Last Real Indians website, and that she and other victim assistance professionals "were treated rudely and disrespectfully, like an arrogant bully who was disgusted with the people he had to interact with and who had no understanding or interest in protecting women from violence."
She accused Cramer of not reading or understanding the tribal provisions in VAWA.
"Your ignorant prejudices about tribal people are not only untrue, but fan the flames of racial divide, the exact opposite of what leaders do to make communities stronger. The disdain you expressed for our tribal leaders and your threats toward them left one woman in tears and revealed how little you care about the people you have been elected to serve, particularly female victims of violent acts.
"Every day, we work to heal women and children who suffer from violence. I am proud of the work that I and my colleagues do. In your position as our Congressman, you are in a position to help tribal and non-tribal communities in North Dakota. My hope and prayer is that you will humble yourself in this leadership position rather than use your authority to divide our community."
The Violence Against Women Act, first adopted in 1994, was reauthorized by Congress and signed earlier this month by President Barack Obama. The reauthorization specifically extends protection to Indian women and provides tribal courts with limited jurisdiction over non-Indian perpetrators on tribal land.
The tribes "will be able to investigate, prosecute, convict and sentence both Indians and non-Indians who assault Indian spouses or dating partners or violate a protection order in Indian country," according to guidelines produced by the U.S. Justice Department and provided to the tribes.
That authority will go to the tribes as of March 7, 2015, the guidelines state.
The reauthorized act also clarifies the tribes' ability to issue and enforce child protection orders.