Oklahoma tribe approves gay marriage as
Native American groups debate issue
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[March 23, 2017]
By Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton
PAWHUSKA, Okla. (Reuters) - A Native
American tribe in Oklahoma has voted to allow same-sex marriage, joining
a small group of prominent tribes changing their law in light of the
U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 2015 decision making the practice legal in
The same-sex case known as Obergefell v Hodges has rippled through the
567 federally recognized Indian Nations. As sovereign entities, they are
not necessarily bound by the Supreme Court decision, leaving many in the
precarious position of trying to decide whether to make the hot-button
issue part of their traditional law.
"Tribes don’t have to follow Obergefell. Tribes should, unless they have
a good reason not to," said Robert Clinton, a professor specializing in
tribal law at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O'Connor College of
Unofficial results of Monday’s special election in the Osage Nation in
northern Oklahoma showed 52 percent approved a referendum amending the
definition of marriage in the tribe’s legal code to include same-sex
couples, officials said this week.
The vote allows the tribe's judicial branch to issue marriage licenses
to gay and lesbian couples. The Osage Nation has more than 20,000
citizens and is one of Oklahoma's larger tribes.
"I know that for a lot of people it was a controversial issue, but for
me, it was not," said Osage legislator Alice Buffalohead, the measure's
Formal opposition to the measure did not emerge, but some in the tribe
felt allowing gay marriage would undermine the tribe's cultural
The Osage join a handful of other prominent tribes that conduct or
recognize same-sex marriages, including the Cherokee Nation and the
Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes. Most of those tribes adopted the measure
around the time of the Supreme Court decision or afterward.
Legal experts said gay marriage was also being considered by a number of
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Darren Black Bear (L) and Jason Pickel arrive to be married by
Darren's father Rev. Floyd Black Bear in El Reno, Oklahoma October
31, 2013. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo
The Osage vote was about two years in the making, with the measure
to make the change in tribal law coming a few months before the 2015
Supreme Court decision and winding its way through the tribal
government before it was put up for a referendum.
Legally, the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights bind states and the
federal government, sometimes both, but not American Indian tribes.
The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 demands that tribes generally
afford similar rights to the extent not inconsistent with their
cultural identity or political integrity.
Many tribes do not issue marriage certificates, relying on states or
the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to provide the documents.
Henry Gray, an Osage college student behind the Osage Citizens for
Marriage Equality Facebook activist group, said the vote in the
Osage Nation this week would help lesbian, gay, bisexual and
transgender people know that the tribe accepts them.
"I have a lot of family and friends who identify as LGBT and there
are still more who are afraid to come out, so getting that passed
was pretty personal," he said.
(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by
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