At the request of a lesbian couple, the Coquille Indian Tribe on the southern Oregon coast, in the U.S. West, has adopted a law recognizing same-sex marriage.
Tribal law specialists say the Coquille appear to be the first American Indian tribe to sanction such marriages. Most tribal law doesn't address the issue. The Navajo and Cherokee tribes prohibit same-sex marriages.
The couple planning their wedding at the tribal plankhouse say they seek only tribal recognition and are unconcerned about Oregon state and U.S. federal prohibitions against gay marriage.
"For me, the important thing wasn't about rights or the benefits," 25-year-old Kitzen Branting told the Eugene Register-Guard. "I just wanted the tribe to say 'Yes, we recognize that you are just as important as any other tribe member, and we will treat you and your spouse as we treat all tribal members.' "
Legal scholars said that tribes do have authority over domestic relations among tribal members, but the U.S. Congress may have the ultimate say-so.
"It can do anything good or anything bad to the tribes and the Indian people as citizen Indians," said Robert Miller, who teaches Indian law at the Lewis & Clark College School of Law in Portland.
He said the tribes have all the rights they have historically held unless Congress takes them away or the tribes give them up by treaty.
"Congress is the 900-pound gorilla in the corner," Miller said.
Bill Funk, who teaches constitutional law at Lewis & Clark, compared the Coquille action to that of states that recognize same-sex marriages even though the federal Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 does not.
"Under federal law, these are not marriages," said Funk, adding that other tribes and states need not recognize a Coquille same-sex marriage.
He said the lack of federal recognition could make the couple ineligible for marriage-related Social Security and other federal benefits.
Only the states of California and Massachusetts allow gay marriage, though some other states allow civil unions for same-sex couples.
Oregon voters amended the state constitution in 2004 to prohibit gay marriage. But with its sovereignty recognized by the federal government, the tribe is not bound by the state constitution. Oregon does recognize civil unions.
"For our tribe, we want people to walk in the shoes of other people and learn to respect differences," the tribal chief, Ken Tanner, told The Oregonian newspaper. "Through that, we think we build a stronger community."
Kitzen Branting, whose maiden name is Doyle, is a tribal member, but her partner is not. Kitzen Branting legally adopted Jeni Branting's last name three years ago. They plan to be married in May and to live on tribal land.
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