Same-sex marriage in Indian Country

Same-sex marriage in Indian Country
By Mark Anthony Rolo

January 12, 2006

Tribal leaders should establish legal protection of same-sex marriage for their members.

In the past year, the issue of marriage equality among Indians has come before two tribal governments. The Navajo Nation, despite a veto attempt by its president, ruled against same-sex marriage within the tribe.

In the Cherokee Nation, the tribal council attempted to ban same-sex marriage after two Cherokee women filed for a certificate of marriage with the tribe. Fortunately, marriage equality prevailed.

The Cherokee Nation's highest court recently affirmed the marriage between tribal members Kathy Reynolds and Dawn McKinley. Despite the outcry of some tribal council leaders, the Cherokee court ruled there was no reason to deny the legal partnership because the marriage posed no harm or threat to the tribal community.

That judicial ruling should serve as a precedent for other Indian governments as they consider the issue of same-sex marriage.

There may be more romantic myth than fact to the idea that, before European contact, all Indian tribes were tolerant of same-sex partnerships. But the level of widespread homophobia visible today certainly appears to be a byproduct of the forced assimilation into white culture for Indians, which has included internalizing the same bigotry and intolerance we see throughout the United States.

In the struggle to exert self-determination, Indian nations must consider traditional tribal values over European-American values. This is especially true on issues like same-sex marriage. Simply put, tribes must base their legislative decisions outside of current mainstream attitudes of intolerance and hatred toward gays and lesbians. Tribal governments must rise above such bigotry and legalize same-sex marriage.

Indian nations understand that sovereignty includes establishing laws that protect the culture, ceremonies and language of their tribe. But tribal governments also need to recognize that our sovereignty means protecting the individual health and welfare of their citizens.

American Indians still face oppression in this country. We still have to deal with intolerance. And unfortunately, a lot of the pain we feel comes from our own people. Sadly, this is one of the darkest legacies of colonization.

The Cherokee high court ruling supporting same-sex marriage for its members should send a strong message to other tribal nations: Tribal governments can help put an end to oppression within our communities by embracing, accepting and legalizing marriage between Indians of the same sex.

Mark Anthony Rolo is a member of the Bad River Band of Ojibwe in northern Wisconsin, and the former executive director of the Native American Journalists Association. He can be reached at