September 6, 2008
Kitzen and Jeni Branting have been in a committed lesbian relationship since high school and plan to get legally married in Oregon next spring.
True, voters amended the state Constitution in 2004 to allow marriage only between a man and a woman. And Congress outlawed gay marriage more than 10 years
But Kitzen Branting, 25, is a member of the Coquille Indian Tribe on the southern Oregon coast, and as a federally recognized sovereign nation, the tribe
is not bound by the state Constitution.
The tribe recently adopted a law that recognizes same-sex marriage and extends to gay and lesbian partners -- at least one of whom must be a Coquille --
all tribal benefits of marriage.
The Coquilles are probably the first tribe in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage, says Brian Gilley, a University of Vermont anthropology professor
and the author of the book Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country.
Many American Indian tribes historically accepted same-sex relationships, Gilley says. But after a lesbian couple married under an ambiguous Cherokee law
in Oklahoma three years ago, that tribe's council adopted a law banning same-sex marriage. Other tribes across the nation, including the Navajos, the nation's
largest tribe, passed similar bans, he says.
Because the Coquilles have federal status, a marriage within the tribe would be federally recognized, Gilley says. And that would violate the Defense of
Marriage Act, the 1996 law that says the federal government "may not treat same-sex relationships as marriages for any purpose."
The federal government could challenge the Coquille law as a way of testing the limits of tribal independence. "This could be a test of sovereignty," he
The tribe concluded that the Defense of Marriage Act may bar the tribe from conferring federal benefits or money on same-sex spouses, said Melissa Cribbins,
an assistant tribal attorney.
Ken Tanner of Ashland, the chief of the Coquilles, says that Indians are "sensitive to discrimination of any kind. For our tribe, we want people to walk
in the shoes of other people and learn to respect differences. Through that, we think we build a stronger community."
The new law establishes tribal rules for recognizing marriage, whether for gay or heterosexual couples. It won't take effect until the tribe also creates
laws for divorce and child custody, tribal attorney Brett Kenney says. The seven-member tribal council expects to adopt such laws next year.
Jeni and Kitzen Branting, whose maiden name is Doyle and who legally adopted Jeni's last name three years ago, already have the tribal benefits of marriage.
That's because part of the new law already is in effect, recognizing marriages and domestic partnerships legally established in states and countries; the
couple entered a legal domestic partnership in Washington state last year.
Jeni and Kitzen Branting joined several tribal members to urge the council about a year ago to consider establishing same-sex marriage.
"I wanted my tribal family to say, `Yes, we recognize that you are equal to any other tribal member, and you are just as important, and your spouse should
have the same rights as any other spouse,'" Kitzen Branting said.