Indians debate gay marriage

On American Indian reservations, some tribes are debating whether they should embrace gay marriage or shun such unions as an affront to family values.

The controversy in these often-ignored sovereign territories within the United States comes as Americans in general are divided, often bitterly, over same-sex weddings. The controversy made headlines again this week as a judge ruled that California’s ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional.

“What goes on in Indian nations now is a microcosm of what is going on across the country,” said David Cornsilk, a Cherokee representing two lesbians in the most prominent case before an American Indian court.

The latest California ruling also came weeks after a legislator in Navajo Nation, the largest and most populous Indian reservation, called for a ban on gay marriage.

Scholars of homosexuality in Indian culture say Native Americans traditionally tolerated gay behavior, an attitude that shifted after the Europeans arrived in North America.

“American Indians firmly believe from forever that procreation was essential for survival, but you could play with anybody,” said Lester Brown, author of “Two Spirit People: American Indian Lesbian Women and Gay Men.”

“Christianity ruined a lot of it,” said Brown, a Cherokee. “The religious groups that were trying to proselytize with the Indians could not accept those different people.”


Brown’s tribe is engaged in a court fight parallel to those taking place in California and elsewhere in the nation. The Cherokee case arose after a lesbian couple obtained a tribal marriage application last year, only to have the Cherokee Nation ban gay marriage and refuse to recognize the union.

Cornsilk, who will argue the case before the Cherokee’s top court, said the California decision could paradoxically make his efforts to win acceptance more difficult because of conservative sentiment in the American Midwest.

“All of the effect all of these cases have had is to simply calcify resistance,” he said by telephone from Tulsa, Oklahoma. “They see both sides of the country, both the East and West Coast, as liberal and not representative of mainstream America.”

Voters in many U.S. states have recently approved measures against gay marriage, while one state, Massachusetts, became the only U.S. state to allow same-sex marriage last year.

Cornsilk, who is gay, said historical documents suggest a group of Indian men married each other in 1825. The Cherokee Tribal Council will hold a hearing on the issue on March 24, he said.

In Navajo Nation in the Southwest, the proposal to ban gay marriage has sparked a flurry of letters to the editor in the local Navajo Times newspaper.

“Like all indigenous tribes and ancient civilizations, homosexuality is a third gender, and marriage was for everyone,” Collestipher Chatto wrote. “But sadly, many of the Dine (Navajo) people are corrupted by the Western beliefs and Christianity, causing many natives to view gays as perverted or sodomites.”

Robert Williams, a University of Arizona professor of law and American Indian studies, said as sovereign nations tribes can set their own family rules, so they could ban or allow gay marriage.

“I’ve heard proposals going both ways,” said Williams, who also serves as a supreme court justice for two tribes. In family law “state law cannot apply, will not apply.”

Joe Shirley Jr., president of the 300,000-strong Navajo Nation, took a cautious approach when asked about the issue at a press conference in Window Rock, Arizona last week.

“I don’t think it is an issue to be handled on the part of the administration, it’s a people issue,” he said. “If anything is going to be had about gay marriages here in Navajo Land, give it to the people, let the people decide on what the stance is going to be on like-people marriages.”

The Navajo people recently approved casino gambling in a voter referendum.

Some U.S. politicians say constituents have lobbied them to urge local tribes to permit gay marriage.

“I had quite a few people call me and say, ‘Why don’t you talk to the tribes about that,”‘ Ron Oden, the openly gay mayor of Palm Springs, California, told Reuters.

Yet he did not expect tribes would quickly extend such recognition as they are already fighting a public relations battle over the growth of Indian casinos. “The last things the tribes want is to get more controversy,” Oden said.

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