Gay marriage in Suquamish; What’s next and what’s in the past?

In covering the Suquamish same-sex marriage story, there were a few conversations that happened after deadline had passed. The story itself appears to be more of symbolic value than anything practical for now, because we haven’t heard of anyone banging down the doors of the tribe’s offices to actually get married.

Even Heather Purser said she just wants that option should she choose to get married later.

Where the story takes on some importance that could matter later is its place in the same-sex marriage movement generally and specifically among Indian tribes.

Brian Gilley, associate professor of anthropology at Indiana University, said the Suquamish Tribe is probably only the second federally recognized tribe to recognize same-sex marriage.

Some of the news that spread Tuesday was that most tribes don’t address it. That might be true, but a large number of tribes have actually passed measures similar to the federal government’s Defense of Marriage Act. That act doesn’t outright ban same-sex marriage, but it defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

The Suquamish Tribe’s willingness to take a different path than tribes nationally is in line with what tribes in the Pacific Northwest do, Gilley said. “It’s just sort of been their history to be different than the rest of Indian country,” he said.

Part of that, he said, is because the stakes are different for them here than they are in other parts of the country. The culture that surrounds the tribe and the possible consequences are different in Washington than they are, say, in Oklahoma.

The issue was huge within the Cherokee nation when two women received an application for a marriage license and were actually married, but then the tribe denied them the opportunity to actually register their marriage certificate. During that time is when Indian Tribes across the country created their DOMA-like standards.

Gilley figures largely in a story published on the Indian Country Media Network website. The writer says gay couples were not uncommon within tribes until Indians began adopting religious principles taught (or demanded of) them by the white people.

Leonard Forsman, Suquamish tribal chairman, said the issue that reached finality Monday wasn’t that big a deal. He confirmed Purser’s recollection that there was no opposition. That the ordinance change proceeded slowly was more a fact that other issues took precedence, not that there were any real naysayers.

“We had an existing marriage ordinance under code. It had to be updated. We’ve got a lot of ordinances that need updating,” he said.

Forsman said he hasn’t seen much written and there isn’t much oral history about same-sex couples in Suquamish history. That seems to be the case in other tribes, that there isn’t much institutional memory of same-sex couples, but backers of a “two-spirit” movement contend they had their role within the community. That fact that there may not be much tradition or oral passed along could be because tribes didn’t see it as a big deal until their new religious beliefs cast negative light on them.

Forsman said that might be why there isn’t much said in Suquamish history. “I think that tells us that it was not anything that was extremely abnormal or judged in the past,” he said.

One question that remains is whether a marriage of a gay couple will, in fact, be recognized in Washington. The state doesn’t marry same-sex couples, but it recognizes those marriages performed elsewhere. The question then becomes whether Suquamish, in this case, is “elsewhere.” It will take someone actually getting the Suquamish marriage to test that out.

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