Oregon was one of the states which, in the last few years, passed an amendment to the state constitution, disallowing same-sex marriage. Since 2004 it has been illegal to marry a person of your own gender in the state. (And regardless of your feelings about homosexuality and the law, screwing around with a constitution, a document whose role is to guarantee rights, not limit them, seems an asinine runaround.)
Well, recently and for the first time in Indian Country, a tribal government has passed a law allowing same-sex marriage. That tribe is the Coquille, an Indian polity and people on the Oregon coast, about an hour’s drive west from where I live in Eugene. The reason that the Coquille were legally able to pass this law was the fact that, as of the 1831 Cherokee Nation v. Georgia Supreme Court decision, incorporated Indian nations are defined as “domestic sovereign nations and marriage is a domestic act.
Not surprisingly, some Indian nations have followed in the states’ footsteps, banning such unions, including the Oklahoma Cherokee nation and the Navajo. However, there is a long history in many tribes of acceptance of homosexual unions.
Because the Coquilles are a federally-recognized tribe, marriages conducted on their land and under their auspices are recognized federally. The federal government may choose to challenge the Coquilles’ law in federal court. At that point, it will, legally, become less a matter of love, sex, family and union and more a question of the limits of sovereignty, a question that has been asked repeatedly over the last hundred years. As a Warm Springs man I knew once told me, “An Indian lives or dies by the law.”
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