FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Cleo Pablo married her longtime partner when same-sex marriage became legal in Arizona and looked forward to the day when her wife and their children could move into her home in the small Native American community outside Phoenix where she grew up.
That day never came. The Ak-Chin Indian Community doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages and has a law that prohibits unmarried couples from living together. So Pablo voluntarily gave up her tribal home and now is suing the tribe in tribal court to have her marriage validated.
“I want equal opportunity,” Pablo said. “I want what every married couple has.”
Pablo’s situation reflects an overlooked story line following the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic decision this year that legalized gay marriages nationwide: American Indian reservations are not bound by the decision and many continue to forbid gay marriages and deny insurance and other benefits.
The reasons vary and to some extent depend on cultural recognition of gender identification and roles, and the influence of outside religions, legal experts say. Other issues like high unemployment, alcoholism and suicides on reservations also could be higher on the priority list, said Ann Tweedy, an associate professor at the Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, who has studied tribes’ marriage laws.
Advocacy groups largely have stayed away from pushing tribes for change, recognizing that tribes have the inherent right to regulate domestic relations within their boundaries.
“Tribal sovereignty is very important to tribes,” Tweedy said. “They don’t want to just adopt what the U.S. does.”
Pablo follows in the footsteps of a handful of other tribal members in Oregon, Washington state and Michigan who lobbied their governments for marriage equality.
The Navajo Nation is one of a few of the country’s 567 federally recognized tribes that have outright bans on gay marriage. Some tribes expressly allow it, while others tie marriage laws to those of states or have gender-neutral laws that typically create confusion for gay couples on whether they can marry.
The mish-mash occurs because tribes are sovereign lands where the U.S. Constitution does not apply.