Photo courtesy Heather Purser
Rebecca Platter, left, and Heather Purser. Purser is a citizen of the Suquamish Tribe, which unanimously voted to permit same-sex marriage.

A Foot in Two Worlds: The Battle for Gay Marriage on Tribal Lands

Samantha Mesa Miles

Four years ago, Heather Purser stood in front of the Suquamish Tribal Council, awaiting the answer to a life-changing question: Would she – a citizen of the tribe – be allowed to marry her non-Native girlfriend?

In Washington State, home to the Suquamish people, the answer then was still no. But federally-recognized Native American tribes are not bound by state laws. So Heather decided to appeal to her tribe. If the state wouldn’t approve gay marriage, maybe her own people would.

So on that quiet spring morning, Purser stood up at the tribe’s annual meeting and asked for a formal approval of same-sex marriage.

The first vote from the 200 people present was a resounding “yes.”

Then, the tribal attorney and seven councilmembers voted.

The answer: Yes.

There was no voiced opposition. Not even a debate.

“It was very humbling, and I felt very honored,” Purser said in a phone interview recently. But she said the decision didn’t surprise her. “It was completely in flow with the values I’ve always observed with the Suquamish people.”

In recent years, as the national fight for same-sex marriage has made headlines, a quieter battle has taken place on Native American lands. To date, at least 10 tribes have formally approved same-sex marriage. These changes have occurred mostly in small tribes where lawmaking is more informal, and it’s easier to extend rights to gay couples.

What follows is the story of two tribes that have confronted the issue of whether to legalize same-sex marriage on their reservations and how they resolved it.   

Suquamish Tribe, Washington

Heather Purser had quietly been a pro-gay marriage activist in her community. Then Purser heard about the Oregon-based Coquille Tribe that approved same sex marriage in 2009. This gave Purser an idea: She might have a better chance legalizing gay marriage if she approached the council of her tribe of 1,000 people than in a state of over seven million people.

When she appeared before the council to make her request, she told the council members that what she wanted most was to feel loved, accepted, and as an equal amongst her tribal community.

To her surprise, the seven councilmembers approved the new law immediately.

The flip side is that the rights granted by the law don’t have a broader reach beyond areas within tribal jurisdiction. But on the reservation, gay couples now have the same rights as straight ones: A gay couple can be married by a tribal leader as long as one partner is an enrolled citizen of that tribe. The couple can then receive tribal health care coverage, and can adopt. The law also makes it possible for a non-Native spouse to remain in tribal housing if the Native partner passes away.

“This is a small step in changing the way LGBT people are viewed on the reservation,” Purser said. “I hope that kids who are questioning their identity, and then their rights, will not be as fearful or ashamed as I had felt. The changing of the law was necessary not only for legal purposes, but to create an environment of greater love and acceptance among the Suquamish people.”

Little Traverse Bay Band of Indians, Michigan

In 2004, Michigan State banned same-sex marriage and civil unions.

But Tim LaCroix of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Indians (LTBB) still dreamt of the day he could marry Gene Barfield, his partner of 30 years. LaCroix knew that if he wanted to get married, he would have to appeal to his tribal council. What followed was a much more divisive process than Purser’s experience.

“Everyone generally knows who’s gay, but they don’t talk about it,” said Winnay Wemigwase, an LTBB tribal council member.

But one thing that gave LaCroix confidence was knowing that historically, being gay was once accepted – even celebrated – among some Native cultures. He identified as Two Spirit, a term used in a number of Native American cultures to describe a third, non-heterosexual gender with both masculine and feminine spiritual qualities.

In the years before colonization, those who identified as Two Spirited were respected as spiritual leaders within the tribe. They dressed in both men’s and women’s clothing, and they often served special roles such as storytellers, counselors, and healers.

But in the Odawa tribe, extending rights to same-sex unions had been turned down in a five to four vote the previous year. LaCroix first had to sway the councils’ vote before Tribal Chairman Dexter McNamara could approve it.

The pivotal meeting took place on March 3, 2013.

LaCroix told the council that having marriage rights would mean that they could live their lives as equal citizens on the reservation.

The floor was then opened for comments.

Doug Emery, a tribal elder, argued against it, citing Romans 22 of the Old Testament –the part about “man not being with man” to the tribal council before the council voted.

“I’m a Christian, and my personal values are that gay marriage is against the Bible,” he said. “God created man and woman, a simple scenario,” he continued. “If two men can’t reproduce with each other, we become extinct.”

Amidst the tension, there was a potential swing vote. Wemigwase, a tribal council member, was the only person struggling with which side to choose. 

She felt conflicted because of her Christian values that defined marriage for heterosexual couples only. And she worried about how this change would impact the tribe’s members. “Are they going to have to deal with discrimination from other tribes knowing that our tribe allows this?” she asked herself.

Minutes passed as people in the room were silent. Finally, she marked her vote in favor of gay marriage. She wasn’t able to justify denying rights to a couple just because they were the same sex. 

“I had thought and prayed so hard about it,” she said. “Love is love.”

At that point, LTBB Chairman McNamara had 30 days to veto or sign the law. McNamara and LaCroix had worked together and served on the tribal board, and McNamara never indicated he had a problem with LaCroix’s lifestyle.

LaCroix then asked him to not veto the law.  

But McNamara did not need convincing.

On March 7, 2013, McNamara confirmed that he would sign the legislation into law on March 15, 2013. With McNamara’s signature, the Tribal Council passed the new Marriage Statute by a five to four vote, defining marriage as “the legal and voluntary union of two persons, to the exclusion of all others.”

The couple knew the law could change back, so they asked McNamara to marry them that same day.

Shortly after, over 100 tribal citizens threw a wedding reception, and sang traditional songs for the couple.

“It was the highlight of my life, and also the strangest thing in my life,” Barfield said recently. “People made such a huge deal about us being gay and getting married.”

For the first time, LaCroix felt he fully belonged in his hometown.

But some tribal elders refused to support the marriage.

Emery went on a Christian radio station and apologized to other tribes for what the council had done. “I think the entire tribe should have had a say in making this decision,” he stated.

But McNamara disagreed.

“It’s not about what other people want,” he said. “Tim and Gene wanted to get married, and there was a law made to do that. Plain and simple.”

“Tim and Gene had love in their hearts for what they believe in,” he continued. “It just happens it’s something we’re not used to seeing.”

Tim LaCroix, left, and Gene Barfield after their marriage was approved. Photo courtesy Annette VanDeCar, Communications Coordinator LTBB.

Tim LaCroix (left) and Gene Barfield after their marriage was approved.

Still, the gay rights movement for Native American tribes is more than about marriage, according to Se-ah-dom Edmo (Shoshone-Bannock, Nez Perce, & Yakama), creator of the Tribal Toolkit for LGBT Equality in Oregon.

“We need to look at the definition of family in every aspect of life,” said Edmo. “It’s about services, and the legal right to be a parent, and to be a partner in your tribe.”

For over a decade, the debate to legalize same-sex marriage has been a hot topic in the United States. The nine justices hear oral arguments on gay marriage cases today, and plan to deliver a national ruling by June 2015.

“There may be some political pressure on tribes if the Supreme Court rules in favor of same sex marriage,” said Elizabeth Ann Kronk, Director of the Tribal Law and Governance Center at the University of Kansas School of Law. “But we prefer to maintain our ability to decide our own policies regardless of the state legislation.”

LaCroix and Barfield have to navigate two systems until gay marriage is recognized in Michigan. In the course of running errands on the reservation and on federal property, “I can be married or unmarried six or seven times in one afternoon,” said Barfield, showing that the fight for equality is far from over.

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