Beliefnet News

By Bill Graves
c. 2008 Religion News Service

COOS BAY, Ore. — Kitzen and Jeni Branting have been in a committed lesbian relationship since high school and plan to get legally married in Oregon next spring.
True, voters amended the state Constitution in 2004 to allow marriage only between a man and a woman. And Congress outlawed gay marriage more than a decade ago.
But Kitzen Branting, 25, is a member of the Coquille Indian Tribe on the southern Oregon coast, and as a federally recognized sovereign nation, the tribe is not bound by the state Constitution.
The tribe recently adopted a law that recognizes same-sex marriage and extends to gay and lesbian partners — at least one of whom must be a Coquille — all tribal benefits of marriage.
The Coquilles are probably the first tribe in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage, says Brian Gilley, a University of Vermont anthropology professor and author of the book “Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country.”
Many Native American tribes historically accepted same-sex relationships, Gilley says. But after a lesbian couple married under an ambiguous Cherokee law in Oklahoma three years ago, that tribe’s council adopted a law banning same-sex marriage. Other tribes across the nation, including the Navajos, the nation’s largest tribe, passed similar bans, he says.
Because the Coquilles have federal status, a marriage within the tribe would be federally recognized, Gilley says. And that would violate the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that says the federal government “may not treat same-sex relationships as marriages for any purpose.”
The federal government could challenge the Coquille law as a way of testing the limits of tribal independence. “This could be a test of sovereignty,” he says.
The tribe concluded that the Defense of Marriage Act may bar the tribe from conferring federal benefits or money on same-sex spouses, said Melissa Cribbins, assistant tribal attorney.
Ken Tanner of Ashland, chief of the Coquilles, says Native Americans are “sensitive to discrimination of any kind. For our tribe, we want people to walk in the shoes of other people and learn to respect differences. Through that, we think we build a stronger community.”
The new law establishes tribal rules for recognizing marriage, whether for gay or heterosexual couples. It won’t take effect until the tribe also creates laws for divorce and child custody, tribal attorney Brett Kenney says. The seven-member tribal council expects to adopt such laws next year.
As a practical matter, Jeni and Kitzen Branting, whose maiden name is Doyle and who legally adopted Jeni’s last name three years ago, already have the tribal benefits of marriage.
That’s because part of the new law already is in effect, recognizing marriages and domestic partnerships legally established in states and countries; the couple entered a legal domestic partnership in Washington state last year.
While Jeni Branting, 27, is not a tribal member, she is entitled to tribal benefits as Kitzen’s spouse, even though the couple plans to move off tribal land to Edmonds, Wash., near Seattle, where both grew up.
Jeni Branting, for example, has applied for the Coquille health care plan. She also is entitled to housing and fitness benefits and access to tribal community events.
The couple met in high school while working in theater productions.
They went on to attend Evergreen State College in Olympia, where they focused on Native American studies and graduated last spring. They spent the past year living on tribal land and studying Coquille culture and history for a senior project.
They were among several tribal members who urged the council about a year ago to consider establishing same-sex marriage.
“I wanted my tribal family to say, `Yes, we recognize that you are equal to any other tribal member, and you are just as important, and your spouse should have the same rights as any other spouse,”‘ Kitzen Branting says.
Kenney, the tribal attorney, said he could find no other tribe that had legalized same-sex marriage. The culture committee reviewed tribal history and concluded “same-sex domestic relations were accepted with no exclusions from tribal citizenship, the community, auspices or spiritual activities,” reported Jack Lenox, the committee chairman.
The new law stirred “some strong feelings” among a minority of tribal members who opposed it, Tanner said. Yet all but two members of the council and a majority of 14 people who testified in a public hearing supported it, tribal leaders said.
“I think it is going to have a very positive impact on this tribe,” Tanner said.
Whatever opinions the wider world might express about the Coquilles’ new law, Kenney said, the act is for the tribe “a solemn, internal matter.”
And for the Brantings, it’s personal. They are planning a wedding for May. Chief Tanner has agreed to officiate.
“We just want to have a celebration with our families,” says Jeni.
“We just want to do what everyone else does.”
(Bill Graves writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.)
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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