Last month, a same-sex couple got married in Oklahoma, a state that currently bans gay marriage. The couple was able to obtain a marriage license through the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, a federally recognized sovereign nation not subject to state laws. The tribe’s marriage laws are not gender-specific and, despite some internal disputes about same-sex unions, tribal leaders have stood behind the current law.
Shortly after, another gay marriage ceremony, the first for the Lake Leech Tribe, was performed in Minnesota on Nov. 15. The couple had been pushing for the right to marry under tribal laws for two years, but it wasn’t until after Minnesota legalized same-sex marriage in August that they were finally allowed to marry.
The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision overruling the Defense of Marriage Act forces the federal government to recognize these marriages. Since the DOMA strike-down in June, the number of tribes that have adopted same-sex marriage laws has doubled.
The tribes “are reaching back to ancient history of their particular culture’s oral tradition, anthropological tradition, historic documentation of settlers, to say, ‘OK, this is, in fact, a basic human right in our culture,’” Brian Gilley, a professor of anthropology at Indiana University and author of “Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country,” told Time magazine.
Oregon’s Coquille Indian tribe led the way by being the first to marry gay couples in 2009. In California, only the Santa Ysabel tribe in San Diego County allows same-sex marriage, a decision reached by their tribal court just last summer.
Even though gay marriage may be a recent legal right for some tribe members, many Native American tribes have a rich history of acceptance of same-sex partnerships. More than 130 Native American tribes embrace mixed-gender roles where certain members can take on both masculine and feminine traits and responsibilities. Two-spirits, as they are commonly known, traverse the male and female spectrum in both work and recreation. For example, a man considered two-spirit could fight in war but help out around the home, all the while being able to take part in both men’s and women’s dances. Entering a same-sex relationship with a two-spirit is seen more as a practical way of solidifying a fragile family structure — often the case with widowed parents. Thus, two-spirits are recognized, often revered, as a vital part of the tribe.
Despite these traditions and recent legal strides, however, only eight Native American tribes recognize same-sex marriage. The two largest tribes in the U.S., the Cherokee and the Navajo, have both banned it. Former Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. in 2005 vetoed the voter-led ban of same-sex marriage, but his decision was overturned by the Navajo Nation Council.
Oscar Raymundo is the head of marketing at a leading LGBT media company. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.