G20, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, LGBTQ, North America

U.S.: Tribal Council Resists Homophobia

Kanya D'Almeida

WASHINGTON, Aug 8 2011 (IPS) - Heather Purser, a member of the Suquamish tribe, whose reservation sits in Washington State, came out to her family at the age of 16, but has never felt completely accepted by her people.

Until now.

Following a unanimous vote last Monday, the Suquamish became the second tribe in the U.S. to recognise same-sex marriages, following on the heels of the Coquille Indian tribe’s historical decision to approve a gay union on the southern Oregon coastal reservation in Coos Bay three years ago.

The Suquamish council’s much-celebrated decision came after 28-year- old Purser embarked on a four-year campaign to adapt the existing marriage ordinance to include same-sex couples.

The new law now allows the tribal court to issue two unmarried people over 18 years of age a marriage license, so long as one of them is an officially enrolled member of the tribe.

“I wanted to feel accepted by my tribe,” Purser said Tuesday. “I was expecting [the] fight to be ugly. But I was so shocked. I guess I was expecting the worst out of people. I was expecting the worst out of my people.”

Back in March, Purser attended the tribal council meeting and, with the support of her family, went up to the microphone to make her plea that the 1,000-member tribe fully and legally accept gay unions by way of a “voice vote”.

The room was filled with a resounding “aye”.

Though she has no immediate marriage plans, Purser is delighted that she and her partner now have the option.

Leonard Forsman, chairman of Suquamish Tribe, expressed gratitude and relief that the amendment took priority within the council, adding in an interview with Associated Press last week, “I’m happy that we’re able to get the work done that will allow the same rights and privileges to all people, regardless of sexual orientation.”

But due to the severe subordination of tribal government’s authority to state and federal legislation, the landmark ruling will have little impact or effect off the reservation.

“As a federally recognised tribe, the Suquamish have a series of statutes governing marriage, such as the Domestic Relations Ordinance that was recently amended in [the Purser case],” Ron Whitener, director of the Tribal Court Public Defense Clinic and assistant director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington, told IPS.

“However, tribes, like states, are bound by the provisions in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which specifically lists tribes as one of the bodies under its scope of authority,” he added.

According to DOMA, which passed both houses of Congress by large majorities and was signed into effect by then-President Bill Clinton, no state “or other political subdivision” can recognise a same-sex relationship that might legally be considered a marriage in another state.

Thus, despite the Suquamish recognising a same-sex union under tribal law, the marriage will not be valid outside the reservation in the state of Washington, which has yet to follow the trail-blazes of Massachusettes, New York, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire or Vermont.

The tribe’s attorney Michelle Hansen said that, although the decision to recognise same-sex unions elsewhere in Washington State would be left up to other courts, hopeful signs such as the legislature’s approval this year of a measure recognising same-sex unions from other jurisdictions were worth noting.

Regardless, “The victory is significant because it represents an exercise in tribal authority that hasn’t been exercised much before,” Whitener told IPS, pointing to the Navajo national council’s prohibition of same-sex marriages in 2005 as an example of obstacles facing gay couples in tribal country.

Fighting the colonial legacy

Not only federal laws, but a brutal colonial legacy and ongoing neocolonial practices bar the way to sexual harmony and equality on reservations, activists say.

“Before the colonisation of the Americas, indigenous customs would not discriminate against two spirited people who held positions of leadership in communities,” Loretta Ross, national coordinator for the SisterSong Women of Colour Reproductive Justice Collective, an umbrella for over 80 local, regional and national grassroots organisations across the country, told IPS.

“Indigenous ideas about gender operated on a continuum, making it impossible to separate people into gender binaries. Rather, gender was experienced as a way of life situated at various points along this continuum,” she added.

“Indigenous communities really resist the colonising impulse to sharply bifurcate people into only two groups and to deny the importance of two-spirit people who were often the medicine men that carried tribal traditions and customs down the ages. In fact, homophobic oppression is viewed as an invasion or assault on traditional cultures,” Ross said.

“The Christianisation of [indigenous] communities has led to an embrace of the Christian attitudes of racism, homophobia and sexism,” Ross, who has worked with SisterSong to amplify the collective voice of indigenous women for over three decades, told IPS.

“We saw that in the African American community with the Christianisation of slaves and we see it now it in the forced removal of masses of indigenous children from their families and cultures into boarding schools, where they are inculcated with patriarchal values.”

She pointed to the example of Cecilia Fire Thunder, the first woman president of the Oglala Sioux tribe in South Dakota, who was voted off her tribal council in 2006 for her open support of an abortion clinic on the reservation.

“Such a move is antithetical to indigenous traditions and history,” Ross stressed.

While scholars and legal experts working in and around reservations are predominantly preoccupied with questions of native autonomy and land sovereignty, those who work on issues of gender, sexuality and reproductive rights are convinced that not only native lands but also native bodies and spirits are hugely impacted by the ongoing occupation.

“When you create cultural isolation, whether it’s through state policies like the forced enrollment of young children in boarding schools or through other colonial policies like the denial of certain health care provisions by the Indian Health Service (IHS), this constitutes a violation of the right of self-determination and represents an attack on sovereignty,” she said.

“So while I applaud this latest move [of the Suquamish tribe] towards greater autonomy, and certainly view it as a victory worth celebrating, we must be aware that it is going to be challenged probably even within the tribe because of the legacy of colonialism, Christianity and patriarchy.”

“But for now we should applauded this bold and brave step and the creation of a welcoming atmosphere for the two-spirit views and members of the tribe, who should not be culturally isolated from their own people,” Ross concluded.

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