WASHINGTON — For Heather Purser, the first pang came more than a decade ago as she gathered clams on Puget Sound’s Chico Beach, watching her cousin’s new husband assist with the digging. She figured she’d never have a legal spouse to help with the backbreaking work.
Then Purser, a member of Washington state’s Suquamish Tribe who knew she was gay at age 7, decided to act: She led a personal lobbying campaign that ended with her tribal council voting in 2011 to approve gay marriage.
“I realized that I do have the power to change my situation,” said Purser, 30, a commercial seafood diver from Olympia, Wash.
With more Native Americans making similar demands, the Suquamish tribe now is one of three that has signed off on marriage by same-sex couples.
Legal experts say it’s another example of tribes using their sovereignty to pass laws that apply only on their land.
With gay marriage legal in 11 states, legal analysts predict more tribes will follow, giving new rights to what many Native Americans call “two-spirit” individuals who carry both a feminine and masculine spirit.
But as Americans await a landmark gay marriage ruling from the Supreme Court this summer, the issue is causing division in Indian Country.
Most recently, in March, the council of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians in Michigan voted 5-4 to approve a gay marriage law. Just last year, the tribe’s leadership voted 5-4 to reject same-sex marriages.
On the same day the law took effect, two Navy veterans became the first couple — and so far, the only — to take advantage of it: Tim LaCroix, 53, a tribal member, married Gene Barfield, 60, his partner of 30 years.
Opponents are criticizing the new law in the current tribal elections.
“God created woman for man, and when you try to rewrite creation you can expect judgment to fall on your people,” said tribal elder Doug Emery. He ran for the tribal council but lost in Monday’s primary, though he hopes there’s enough turnover to scrap the law after the June general election.
John Keshick III, a member of the council who voted against gay marriage, said the tribe should accept the outcome.
“To me, it was a close vote, and I voted the way I was brought up,” he said. “But to me, it’s kind of like water over the dam — it’s done.”
Tribes have long wrestled with the issue.
In one of the first votes, the Navajo Nation Council in 2005 banned same-sex marriages and unions between close blood relatives.
Three years later, the Coquille Indian Tribe in Oregon became the first in the nation to approve a gay marriage law.
But with 566 federally recognized tribes, the majority have stayed silent.
Ron Whitener, executive director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle, predicted that would change quickly if the Supreme Court or Congress threw out the Defense of Marriage Act and made gay marriage a universal right. The law allows states to not recognize gay marriages from other states.
Whitener said many tribes are hesitant to pass laws because of the hard legal issues involved: For example, does a tribe have jurisdiction over the divorce of a tribal member who married a non-tribal member on reservation land?
“That is the big hang-up for tribal gay marriage statutes, from a legal perspective,” he said.
Scholars note that before their introduction to Christianity, many tribes accepted their gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members as “two spirits,” even giving them added respect because they were thought to have special powers.
Consequently, they say, gay marriage is easier for many tribal members to accept, though it still kicks up plenty of controversy.
“The debate in Indian Country is very similar to the debate in the United States in that you have strong feelings going both ways,” said Elizabeth Ann Kronk, director of the Tribal Law and Governance Center at the University of Kansas School of Law and a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Michigan. “What you see in Indian country is this struggle between the historical accepting of the two-spirit individuals versus the relatively new but yet very strong Christian influences.”
Whitener, a member of Washington state’s Squaxin Island Tribe, recalled how his openly gay cousin got elected to his tribe’s council, with his sexuality never coming up. He said tribal members have “a much more fluid spirituality” and tend to be more tolerant.
“This is a generalization, but I don’t think that homosexuality among most tribal groups was something that they considered taboo,” Whitener said. “There wasn’t a book that said this was a sin and that guided the entire cultural landscape for tribes.”