Skip to main content

Will Gay Marriage Split Indian Country?

When the United States Supreme Courts rules on gay marriage before its current session ends, Native Americans will likely greet the ruling with mixed feelings. Indian Country in the United States is deeply divided over gay marriage. At least ten tribes – such as the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma—recognize same-sex marriages. Many others do not.

At least 1 million Native Americans are citizens of tribal nations that do not recognize same-sex marriages. These include the Osage Nation and the Navajo Nation. In 2005, the Navajo Nation – which has a population in excess of 300,000—voted to ban same-sex marriages. That ban has divided Navajo citizens.

While the Navajo people debate the future of same-sex marriage in their nation, an even larger Native American population has become divided over the issue of gay rights and same-sex marriage.

The Eastern Band of Cherokees in North Carolina, with a population of approximately 13,000, and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, whose population exceeds 300,000, both hold strong positions against gay rights and same-sex marriage.

For gay Cherokee couples in North Carolina, their tribal government’s position on same-sex marriage is unequivocally clear. As the state of North Carolina has moved toward issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples over the past decade, the Eastern Band of Cherokees have passed laws that declare “the licensing and solemnizing of same-sex marriages are not allowed within this jurisdiction.”

Same-sex couples in the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma face similarly stark legal rejections of their relationships. The implications are profound. Communities are divided – sometimes bitterly so – over the issue; same-sex couples are legally defined as “roommates,” not spouses; and the support a partner can offer a hospitalized loved-one is limited by the discriminatory nature of Cherokee law. How did Cherokees, like so many other citizens of tribal nations, arrive at this point?

Marriage has a complicated history among the Cherokees. Traditionally, Cherokees belonged to one of seven matrilineal clans. Marriage was exogamous, meaning that couples wishing to marry must belong to different clans. Grandmothers, mothers, and the intended bride exercised considerable power in determining the fate of a potential marriage. For instance, when a young man wished to marry a woman he killed a deer and presented it to his intended bride as a gift. If the young woman chose to cook the deer meat it meant that she had decided to marry her suitor.

But traditions never stay the same. During the early nineteenth century, the Cherokees adopted marriage laws that resembled the patriarchal ideals of white, bourgeois Americans. And like states throughout the American South and West, the Cherokee Nation adopted laws that prohibited intermarriage with blacks.

On same-sex marriage, however, Cherokee lawmakers said very little. Throughout the nineteenth century, leading Cherokee politicians and legal figures came under the influence of evangelical missionaries and adopted their perspectives on issues such as temperance and marriage. The silences of Cherokee leaders on same-sex marriage in many ways reflected the influence that Christian missionaries had on Cherokee sexual mores. Marriage, quite simply, was about the establishment of patriarchal families.

Although scholars remain divided over the existence of gender-bending and same-sex couples in traditional Cherokee culture, evidence does suggest that non-traditional gender identities and gay marriages existed. Take for instance a provocative 1825 document that refers to “men who assumed the dress and performed all the duties of women and who lived their whole life in this manner.”

Anthropologists once referred to such people as “berdache.” Today the term “two-spirits” is used to describe people who defy easy classification as male or female. At the time of first contact with Europeans, many Native American communities believed that two-spirits possessed special powers that empowered them to perform important spiritual functions, such as caring for the recently deceased.

But did two-spirit people enter into what we might think of today as marriage? Perhaps. Scholars have much stronger evidence for the existence of same-sex marriages. Qwo-Li Driskill, a leading Cherokee voice on gay rights, cautions that we should not “subsume same-sex relationships and gender ‘non-conformity’ under the umbrella of ‘Two-Spirits,” but Driskill does observe that evidence exists to demonstrate that traditional Cherokee marriage ceremonies did in fact join same-sex couples in “perpetual friendship.”

There’s no question that gay rights and same-sex marriage will continue to stir debate in Indian Country, as it does throughout the United States. The positions people take on the issue will say as much about our own times (and lingering prejudices) as it will about the relationship of Native Americans to the history of colonialism in North America. Among the Cherokees, some may take comfort in the idea that gay marriage is a “white issue” with little relevance to their own lives. For same-sex Cherokee couples, such a position is not a viable option. They will justifiably turn to the Cherokee peoples rich and complex history to assert their civil rights in the 21st century.

Gregory Smithers is an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University. His most recent book, The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of Migration, Resettlement, and Identity, is set for release in September 2015.