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Same-sex marriage (SSM) among Native Americans

Adoption of SSM by the Coquille Nation of Oregon

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Background:

Kitzen Branting, 25, formerly Kitzen Doyle, is a member of the small Coquille Indian Tribe on the southern coat of Oregon. She has been in a loving, committed same-sex relationship with Jeni Branting, 27, since their first year as school students. They are now graduates of Evergreen State College in Olympia. WA. Kitzen legally took Jeni's last name when the couple registered as domestic partners in Washington State during 2007 and were married in 2009-MAY, with Coquille Chief Ken Tanner officiating.

The Brantings joined with some other tribal members in the fall of 2007 to urge the council to adopt marriage equity. Kitzen said:

"I wanted my tribal family to say, 'Yes, we recognize that you are equal to any other tribal member, and you are just as important, and your spouse should have the same rights as any other spouse'."
Jenni said:
"We just want to have a celebration with our families. We just want to do what everyone else does."

Brett Kenney, the tribal lawyer, was unable to find any other Native American group that had legalized SSM in modern times. The tribe's culture committee reviewed their group's history. Chairperson Jack Lenox concluded that, among the Coquille tribe in the past:

"... same-sex domestic relations were accepted with no exclusions from tribal citizenship, the community, auspices or spiritual activities."

Most of the individuals who testified in a public hearing before the committee supported SSM. 1

Brian Gilley, a University of Vermont anthropology professor and author of the book "Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country" said that the Coquilles are probably the first tribe in the U.S. to legalize same-sex marriage (SSM). 2

Chief Tanner said that Native Americans are:

"sensitive to discrimination of any kind. For our tribe, we want people to walk in the shoes of other people and learn to respect differences. Through that, we think we build a stronger community. ... I think it is going to have a very positive impact on this tribe."

He told ABCNews.com:

"Native Americans, more than anyone, know about discrimination. Our directive is to provide recognition and respect to all members of our tribe." 5

The law that extends the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples was passed with a vote of 5 to 2. It took effect in 2009 after additional laws covering divorce and child custody were passed. As long as one of the spouses is a member of the tribe, the couple receives all of the tribal benefits of marriage.

A minority of tribal members have strong feelings against marriage equity, even though it has been a part of their cultural heritage.

Conflict with state law:

Although Oregon voters passed an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as a union only of one man and one woman, the Coquille Tribe is a federally recognized sovereign nation and is thus not subject to the state constitution.

Conflict with federal law:

Because the tribe has federal status, all of their marriages -- both same-sex and opposite-sex -- are recognized by the federal government. However, the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prohibits the federal government from considering "...same-sex relationships as marriages for any purpose." This means that the over 1,000 federal benefits and obligations of marriage would not be granted to same-sex married couples among the Coquilles.

This new tribal law could eventually trigger a lawsuit that would test the limits of tribal independence and could challenge the constitutionality of the DOMA law. Using the reasoning that the U.S. Supreme Court employed in Romer v. Evans (1996) to overturn Colorado's Amendment 2, the court could find the federal and state DOMA laws to be unconstitutional. As of early 2012, there are about a dozen lawsuits challenging the federal DOMA law in states from Massachusetts to California.

References:

  1. "Bill Graves, "Gay marriage may test Native American sovereignty," Religion News Service, 2008-SEP-04, at: http://pewforum.org/
  2. Brian Gilley, "Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country," University of Nebraska Press, (2006). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  3. "Kitzen and Jeni Branting, May 2008, Wedding Equality, at: http://weddingequality.tumblr.com/
  4. Sarah Netter, "Brides Look Forward to Marrying Under Tribal Same-Sex Marriage Law," ABC News, 2008-AUG-27, at: http://abcnews.go.com/

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Copyright © 2008 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2008-SEP-12
Latest update: 2012-MAY-05
Author: B.A. Robinson

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