Navajo group aims to undo law banning gay marriage

A Native American tribe’s LGBT members hope to follow a trend in the states surrounding their territory

Navajo Nation Tribal Council chambers in Window Rock, Ariz., in 2006.
Matt York/AP

It’s unclear whether opposition to gay marriage in Indian Country comes primarily from Native American tradition or from the influence of the majority of U.S. states where it is still illegal. A Navajo group’s battle to overturn a tribal ban on same-sex unions has become a microcosm of this question.

Alray Nelson, founder of the Coalition for Navajo Equality, says he wants the Navajo Nation to respect same-sex relationships, just like two of the states that surround its territory — New Mexico, where gay marriage was legalized this month, and Utah, where it was recently ruled legal but faces a mounting appeal.

“There’s no organized faction against this, like in the fight (for) Proposition 8 in California,” said Nelson, 27, whose organization is seeking to make tribal legislators review a 2005 tribal ban on gay marriage early next year.

Opposition to the review may not be organized, but it exists.

Deswood Tome, a special adviser to Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, told Al Jazeera that although Navajo respect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Navajo, marriage is traditionally between a man and woman.

Tome referred to a traditional phrase in the Navajo language that “means that ‘a man and woman come together.’ That's our core belief as Navajo people ... I’ve never heard of a man and man.”

The Navajo Nation does not see its legislation prohibiting gay marriage as an affront to LGBT people, he said.

“The Navajo Nation Council doesn’t look at this as an anti issue. There are many gays and lesbians who are Navajo. The way we look at it is that they are people, just like heterosexuals. They’re the same,” he said.

Tome, who Navajo Nation public-relations staff said was the tribal president’s aide most familiar with the issue of same-sex marriage, initially said he did not know the exact status of the legislation barring gay marriage or Shelly’s stance on the issue.

“I have to call the president and ask him,” Tome said in a telephone interview.

Later, he called back and said Shelly “basically reaffirmed what I was telling you about Navajo beliefs.”

“But as far as him personally … he says it is their personal choice. So if two men want to tie the knot, it’s up to them.”

Darryl Tso, another special adviser to the Navajo government who, Tome indicated, may better know the legislation and movements against it, did not respond to an interview request from Al Jazeera.

Although Tome’s interpretation of Navajo social mores indicates that Nelson’s group may face some opposition because of tribal tradition, activists note that the original legislation banning gay marriage on Navajo land took root because of D.C. politics. 

“Back in 2005, the Tribal Council passed this law. It was a reactionary law. At the time, President (George W.) Bush was pushing for a definition of marriage at a national level,” Nelson said. In 2004, Bush called for a constitutional amendment that would solidify the principles of the Defense of Marriage Act, which the Supreme Court largely struck down in June.

Two spirits

Some members of other Native American tribes echoed Nelson’s opinion that legislation barring gay marriage comes from non-Native Americans. 

In October two gay men became the third same-sex couple to be officially married by the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes. Their territory is surrounded by Oklahoma, where gay marriage remains illegal and faces much opposition. 

After their marriage, a high-level official called a tribal meeting to discuss measures to block such unions, said Cheyenne and Arapaho Lt. Gov. Amber Bighorse-Suitor. 

“I was surprised when this broke that there was any opposition in the tribe. The attitude in Oklahoma seems to have infiltrated some of our tribal attitudes,” she said. 

The discourse on banning gay marriage went nowhere, Bighorse-Suitor said, because the tribal constitution prevents the government from making laws that discriminate against tribe members on the basis of sexual orientation.

She said opposition to gay marriage was introduced into the Cheyenne and Arapaho cultures from the outside. 

“The younger people have grown up not inheriting that (anti-gay marriage) attitude,” she said. “Native cultures might be more likely to go in the opposite direction, incorporating these ideals that come from Anglo religions into their mind-set.”

Bighorse-Suitor noted that in many Native American cultures, gay people have “always been honored” as “two-spirit people” endowed with spiritual talents.

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