Youth Commentary: American Indian tribes should follow their traditions of embracing diverse sexual orientations and support same-sex marriage, the writer says. Instead, some tribes are doing the opposite.

By Gabriel Duncan, Pacific News Service


ALAMEDA, Calif. – Aug 08, 2005 – I’ve long known that about half of America doesn’t like gay people. It’s been made pretty clear, most recently with the rejection of numerous marriage equality bills, and the approval of anti-gay marriage legislation in 37 states. But now, to my dismay, Indian Country is following the white man’s lead.

First, the Navajo Nation Council passed a ban on same-sex marriages in June, overriding the veto of Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. The legislation banned marriages between members of the same sex on the nation’s largest Indian reservation. Now, justices in a Cherokee Nation courthouse are hearing arguments in the case of a Cherokee couple who wed, received their tribe-issued marriage certificate, and were set to live happily ever after — that is, until an attorney contested the wedding. That’s when everything got complicated.

Tribal members Dawn McKinley, 33, and Kathy Reynolds, 28, have asked the court to throw out the lawsuit that stopped their effort to file their marriage certificate, arguing that Todd Hembree — the tribal member and attorney who filed suit — had no standing to complain because he wasn’t harmed by their marriage.

Hembree argued that tribal laws use the words “husband” and “wife,” not “wife” and “wife.” But in Cherokee, the word “wife” means “cooker,” and the word “husband” means “companion.” Both are gender neutral. In Mohawk, “my husband” means “the person I live with.”

Native people have never viewed marriage, or equality, the same way that non-Native people have. Historically, marriage in the United States has been about property. According to the first settlers who came onto our land, any man who didn’t own property (e.g. land, wife or child) could be sold into slavery. And since us “Injuns” were sub-human — even if we had 10 wives, 30 kids and covered the entire continent — that meant us.

Today, marriage is still about property. It’s about social security, health insurance and children. But it’s also about rights. With a “California Registered Domestic Partnership,” you only get 15 “rights.”

But with a “Civil Marriage License,” you get more than a thousand rights, affecting areas like immigration, social security, Medicare, housing and food stamps, taxes, veteran’s benefits, employee benefits, federal loans, hospital visitation, child custody and wills.

Native peoples have historically had a more fluid view of sexuality. Bisexual, straight, gay, transgender — hey, it didn’t matter. That was how you were made and people weren’t going to stone you to death just because you were different. In fact, your differences made you special.

“Two-Spirits” like myself — the modern term for gay, lesbian, bi and trans Native Americans — were hailed as medicine men.

As Two-Spirits, we were depended on to heal, keep the history of our people, and care for the children. Two-Spirited people were often “cookers,” though they could also be warriors — gender roles didn’t really matter. Looking back at the travel journals of the Spanish conquistadors, you can find a story about fierce, bare-chested female warriors who obliterated an entire war party. And back then, if a man chose the basket instead of the bow, his tribe would socialize him with the women. No big deal.

I’m not trying to make this sound like the pre-contact world was one big free-love party, but gay marriage was certainly a “non-issue,” as Navajo President Shirley said during the debate over the same-sex marriage ban. Sex and sexuality were natural. Love was unconditional. And diversity was celebrated.

What this boils down to is that what we do in our own bedrooms is ours — no matter what the white people say. No matter what they tell us their God says. That’s what this really is about: assimilation, guilt and indoctrination.

Diversity and tolerance are integral to all of our cultures. Don’t let them die too.


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Gabriel Duncan, 19, is a California Pauite and the founder of BAAITS-S Youth Circle, a Bay Area organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youths who are Native American. He is a writer for Seventh Native American Generation (SNAG) magazine, and a contributor toYouth Outlook (YO!). Contact SNAG at

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