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Native American Advocates Discuss Suquamish Tribe Marriage Equality Ruling

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On August 1, the Suquamish Tribal Council unanimously voted to extend marriage equality to gay and lesbian couples, making them the second Native American tribe in the U.S. to do so (the Coquille tribe of southern Oregon sanctioned marriage equality in 2008).  The vote formalizes a decision made by the 300 attendees of the tribe’s annual meeting at the Port Mason Indian Reservation in Washington state in March, following the request of 28-year-old tribe member Heather Purser, who is a lesbian.

Heather Purser (Photo Credit: Elaine Thompson, Associated Press)

Purser said she expected some dissent when she asked for a formal vote, and was surprised when none was voiced.  Instead, when Purser took the microphone and made her plea that the 1,000-member tribe fully and legally accept marriages for gay and lesbian couples by way of a 'voice vote,' the room was filled with a chorus of affirmation.

Purser’s efforts to get her tribe to legally recognize marriage equality actually began four or five years ago, a fact that likely led to the formal vote’s success.  The commercial seafood diver told Seattle Weekly that she first approached the Tribal Council with the support of her family, saying, “I'm a lesbian and I might want to get married someday, please extend me the same rights as everyone else.”  Though the Council was supportive, getting them to take a formal vote required Purser to show up again and again over a period of years, gradually building support among her fellow tribe members.

While Purser is in a committed relationship, she doesn’t have plans to get married right away, but she is glad that she has the option now.  When GLAAD asked what motivated her to lead the effort to pass marriage for gay and lesbian couples within her tribe, she stated,

I grew up with the belief that we’re all equal in our tribe, and I felt that not recognizing same-sex marriage in our tribal constitution was hypocrisy.  It really bothered me, because I know of a lot of other gay people in my tribe, many of whom are closeted.  My hope is that other tribal people across the United States might consider embracing the values that existed pre-contact with Europeans, because I feel that a lot of Native American values are to respect people no matter who they are.  In my own tribe, we accepted outsiders even though their values were completely different from our own - acceptance is a cultural value that we need to reconnect with.  I really appreciate all the support I’ve received from the Suquamish - they are a great people, and I’m proud to be one of them.

In the wake of the ruling, the Seattle Times interviewed James Abler, a 24-year-old Suquamish member who works as an assistant teacher at the tribe’s Early Learning Center and who came out eight years ago.  He stated,

I've never had any trouble [being openly gay]...It's just normal to everybody for two people who love each other to formalize their relationship and celebrate in front of everybody.  I'm very proud of being Suquamish.

When GLAAD asked other LGBT Native American advocates to reflect on the significance of the ruling, many felt it was not a surprise, echoing Purser and Abler’s assertions that acceptance is a Native American value.

Michelle Enfield, HIV Prevention Training Specialist at the Red Circle Project, stated,

Michelle Enfield (Photo Credit: Long Beach Lesbian & Gay Pride)

The legalization of [marriage equality] within the tribe is an example of our spirituality and how we view our gender and sexual orientation in our community. This is bringing our communities back to our roots and our traditions.  What this is saying to the Native American community is that we are aware of the historical trauma that has come to many Native American communities with the infiltration of religion and how that has taken away from our ceremonies, our beliefs, our traditions - but this ruling speaks to the resilience we have to keep in line with our culture and our tradition.  It’s very empowering, especially for urban Indians, because we have lost a lot of that, and this is a great example to say ‘this is how we are, and this is how we have always been.’

Coya White Hat-Artichoker, founding member of the Two-Spirit First Nations Collective, affirmed the existence of cultural traditions to support marriage for gay and lesbian couples, but questioned whether this should be a priority issue for Native American communities.  She stated,

Coya White Hat-Artichoker (Photo Credit: MIN Enterprises Photography)

Within our community, I think the concept of gay and lesbian and that identity construct is a Western manifestation that has come about in the past 50-100 years.  I’ve found most tribes had a historic role for people who were a different gender, and I wrote about this when the film Two Spirits was released.   In my culture, (I grew up on the Lakota Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota), we had a tradition of women who lived their lives more like men, and that wasn’t judged but rather seen as different and unique.  Lakota spirituality dictates that it is not my place to judge what someone else’s life path is. I should be more concerned and worried about what I am doing.  From this we can draw the idea that there is no need to be discriminatory or violent towards someone else.

The introduction of concepts like monogamy, binary gender and the role of men as head of household were introduced to Native Americans through churches during colonization.  What we bring forward to the queer community is the idea of acceptance that has a history in our communities, a memory of a time when we did not have oppression based on our desires and our gender identities.  I think this provides a lot of LGBT Native American people with a lot of hope (though I am cautious about how that gets appropriated by queer community that is not First Nations).

Against this history, I’m not surprised the Suquamish Tribe was willing to recognize [marriage equality].

Richard Anguksuar LaFortune, national director of the Two Spirit Press Room, emphasized the tradition of Native American advocates organizing for peace and social justice, and expanded the discussion to one of sovereignty.  He shared,

Native Americans have a long history of peace and social justice activism in this land, beginning with our resistance to decolonization, which is very different from what inspired the Stonewall riots.  We had same-sex marriage thousands of years before Europeans ever arrived to this land.  If we are looking for a restoration of codified, institutionalized same-sex relationships, we have pre-existing models. But it is up to us as sovereign people, under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to determine.

Richard Anguksuar LaFortune

Over the last 30 years that LGBT Native Americans have begun to organize together, we have differed in many ways from the national emerging LGBT agenda.  Where the national movement emphasizes gays in the military and same-sex marriage, we are focused on decolonization principles, improving the lives of all people, and especially on challenging the artificial poverty that has been imposed on indigenous communities for generations and that has created a series of highly complex social factors like violence, homelessness, suicide, chemical dependency, and environmental contamination of our lands.  Under treaties with the US government, our access to traditional hunting and gathering is supposed to be guaranteed.  Preservation of our traditional family structures and culture is supposed to be protected.  Yet these treaties are not in a state of fulfillment.  When our land is polluted or our graves are robbed, it barely makes a ripple in local or national news.  The federal government has continually removed federal funding support to organizations supporting Native communities...

Ultimately, though, this is an issue of tribal sovereignty.  When the federal government passed DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act], tribal communities were specifically singled out in the language.  I attend National Policy Roundtable meetings, and one of the things I’ve maintained is that we need to examine the matrix of this DOMA legislation, because I believe it’s unconstitutional to specify what tribal governments may do or not do in terms of codifying relationships on reservations.

Karama Blackhorn, member of the Kahosadi tribe of Oregon, underscored the importance of this ruling as a way to assert sovereignty and protect community members, stating,

Karama Blackhorn (Photo Credit: National Youth Advocacy Coalition)

“I think it’s a great move towards asserting political sovereignty and may strengthen membership safety and connections if the legal right was something seen as needed by the community. I know the Coquille Nation passed gay marriage a few years back, and I heard it was a big deal to a lot of folks primarily because non-Native partners can’t be recognized by the tribe unless married to a member of the tribe, thereby leaving all queer families without tribal recognition and support.  This also meant that the children of gay couples had to petition often with some difficulty to be recognized.  It’s likely the impact will be the same for Suquamish families.”

Blackhorn highlighted the precedent for tribes in the Pacific Northwest recognizing marriages for gay and lesbian couples conducted within other tribal nations, explaining, “The Coquille are a recognized tribe of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz (along with my people), and the Siletz as far as I know haven't made any major statements about marriage but do recognize Coquille gay marriages.”

In terms of Washington state recognition of marriage equality performed on Suquamish land, NPR reported that while marriage equality is still illegal in Washington state, earlier this year, the state legislature approved a measure recognizing unions between gay and lesbian couples from other jurisdictions, which include other nations.  State lawmakers also have approved a so-called 'everything but marriage' law, granting same-sex couples many protections.

Given these developments, Michelle Hansen, a Suquamish tribal attorney, told the Seattle Times that the Suquamish ruling “won't have much legal clout,” as it won't affect the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" prohibition on federal benefits, such as Social Security, for married gay and lesbian couples. Furthermore, under DOMA, tribes and states are not obligated to honor marriages for gay and lesbian couples conducted within a particular tribal nation (though they may elect to do so, as Blackhorn describes above).

Regardless, Ron Whitener, Director of the Tribal Court Public Defense Clinic and Assistant Director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington, told the Inter Press Service, “The victory is significant because it represents an exercise in tribal authority that hasn't been exercised much before," pointing to the Navajo national council's prohibition of marriages for gay and lesbian couples in 2005 as an example of obstacles facing gay couples in tribal country.

Elton Naswood, Consultant for the Tribal Law & Policy Institute, believes the Suquamish decision "sets some precedents for tribal governments, law-making bodies, and the courts."  He explained, "Traditionally, federal law only trumps tribal law in criminal, not civil matters.  So tribes may have the jurisdiction here to bring suit against the federal government.  It will be important for more tribes to follow these developments so that they are equipped to exercise their sovereignty rights in this matter if they so choose.”