Handful of holdout Native American tribes stand firm against same-sex marriage

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JONATHAN DREW and FELICIA FONSECA [ap]

In this Jan. 25, 2014 photo provided by Jerry Archuleta, Alray Nelson, left, and Brennen Yonnie, right, pose for a photo at the flea market in Gallup, N.M. The couple has been advocating to have a Navajo Nation law that prohibits same-sex marriages repealed.Jerry Archuleta

In this Jan. 25, 2014 photo provided by Jerry Archuleta, Alray Nelson, left, and Brennen Yonnie, right, pose for a photo at the flea market in Gallup, N.M. The couple has been advocating to have a Navajo Nation law that prohibits same-sex marriages repealed.

Even if a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this spring makes same-sex marriage the law, it would leave pockets of the country where it isn’t likely to be recognized any time soon: the reservations of a handful of sovereign Native American tribes, including the two largest.

Since 2011, as the number of states recognizing such unions spiked to 37, at least six smaller tribes have revisited and let stand laws that define marriage as being between a man and a woman, according to an Associated Press review of tribal records. In all, tribes with a total membership approaching 1 million bar the institution.

Several explicitly prohibit same-sex marriage. And some have even toughened their stance.

In December, just weeks after North Carolina began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the state’s Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians updated its law to add language preventing gay couples from having marriage ceremonies performed on tribal land. The resolution changing the law, which passed 8-1, says court cases around the country prompted the tribe of about 13,000 enrolled members to review its own laws.

The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and the Navajo Nation, with about 300,000 members each, maintain decade-old laws that don’t recognize same-sex marriage. Neither tribe has shown much sign of shifting.

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Alray Nelson, a gay rights activist who lives with his partner Brennen Yonnie on the Navajo reservation, said the tribe’s law denies same-sex couples the right to be included in decisions on a partner’s health care, or to share in a home site lease. Getting a marriage license would only require a short drive to a courthouse off the reservation, but the couple — both enrolled Navajo members — would rather wait until it’s allowed on the reservation.

“We are both planning to build a life here, and we want to raise a family,” he said. “So it’s not an option for us to remove ourselves from our community.”

As with the states, opposition to gay marriage varies among tribes. At least 10 have recognized same-sex marriage, often well ahead of their surrounding states and without having judges force their hands. Many others are neutral.

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