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Gay Marriage in Native America

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We look at gay marriage legislation in Native America and issues of of tribal sovereignty, cultural tradition, and legal rights. We speak with the president of the Navajo nation and a Cherokee woman who is fighting for legal recognition in the tribal courts. [includes rush transcript]

The debate over gay marriage continues to divide the nation and in the last year, many states have passed laws prohibiting the recognition of same sex marriages. However, at the same time, some states have moved forward in granting legal rights to gay and lesbians couples. Connecticut recently joined Vermont in legalizing “civil unions,” which are designed to afford the same legal protections, rights, and responsibilities as marriage. And Oregon could soon become the third state to legalize civil unions.

The gay marriage debate has been playing out in Indian country as well, touching on issues of tribal sovereignty, cultural tradition, and legal rights.

The Navajo Indian Tribe is the largest tribe in the United States. It extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, covering over 27,000 square miles. In April, the Navajo tribal council passed the Dine Marriage Act of 2005, which banned same-sex marriages. Earlier this month, however, the president of the Navajo nation, Joe Shirley, vetoed the legislation calling it discriminatory. The tribal council is planning to try to overturn the Shirley’s ban.

Meanwhile, in Cherokee nation, which is the second largest tribe in the U.S and encompasses 14 counties in Northeast Oklahoma, the tribal council also banned same sex marriages. But the ban was passed after a lesbian couple had already obtained a tribal marriage application.

  • David Cornsilk, member of the Cherokee nation. He lives in Tulsa Oklahoma.
  • Joe Shirley, President of the Navajo Nation.
  • Dawn McKinley, she and her girlfriend, both members of the Cherokee nation, married last year. They are now fighting for legal recognition in the Cherokee tribal courts.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Dawn McKinley and Kathy Reynolds are now fighting for legal recognition of their marriage in the Cherokee tribal courts. We’ll speak with Dawn in a moment but first we go to the President of the Navajo Nation, Joe Shirley, speaking to us from Arizona. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JOE SHIRLEY: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you us with. Can you talk about what is happening among the Navajo around the issue of same sex marriage, the legislation that was passed by your tribal council, and why you decided to veto it?

JOE SHIRLEY: Well, I really don’t know why the Navajo Nation council even considered banning same sex marriage because Navajo land is not even an issue, and that’s one of the reasons that I — you know, I vetoed the legislation, because it’s not an issue, we’re not talking about it. The elderly, the medicine people are not talking about it. Nobody is coming forward to say that, you know — gay people, they’re not coming forward to say, we want to get married in the tribal courts. It’s not an issue, and I don’t know why the Nation’s council is concerned about it, and they have passed a legislation to say that we shall not have it. There are other issues that they really ought to be concerned about, you know: the driving under the influence is really killing a lot of people, even the young; bootlegging; domestic violence; gangs. These are just some of the issues that we really need to be working on, and doing something about, not banning same sex marriage. Then, too, I believe that the right to be whatever that is, is a real basic right, and in this case 67 people said that, you know, we shall not have the same sex marriage. That’s — you know, out of a nation that is a little bit over 300,000, what’s 67 people doing trying to be discriminatory, you know, trying to take away a real basic human right. I don’t think that’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, President Shirley, your — the Navajo tribal council passed the bill with a vote of 67-0, passed the bill banning same sex marriage.

JOE SHIRLEY: Yes, that’s what I mean. What’s 67 people doing trying to be discriminatory, trying to take away a basic human right, the right to be. I don’t think that should be the case. And thereby, I vetoed the legislation. If anything, you know, like I said, there’s a little bit over 300,000 of us. I think we’re approaching about 100,000 registered voters. If anything, at the very least, if you are going to talk about curbing basic rights or taking a position on a basic right, give it to the people. Let the people decide how they are going to address same sex marriages.

AMY GOODMAN: Will it be given as a referendum to the Navajo people?

JOE SHIRLEY: I am not sure. Of course, right now, I believe the Navajo Nation council is going to be going into a special session this coming Friday, on June 3, to try to overturn my veto, and in their — in my veto message, it says, you know, at the very least give it to the people in referendum. I don’t think they’re going to discuss it at that time. I don’t know if — if they cannot override the veto, I don’t know how they’re going to try and give it to the people in referendum form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to the President of the Navajo Nation. We’re talking to Joe Shirley in Arizona about his veto of a unanimous vote for same sex marriage in the Navajo tribal council. Now, the Dine Marriage Act, Dine referring to the Navajo Nation, goes a step further than banning gay marriage. It also states the tribe will not recognize such a marriage if performed in other states, for example, in Massachusetts?

JOE SHIRLEY: Yes, I believe so, but then again, like I said it’s the same thing. It’s stating the position against the same sex marriage in a different — in a little different way.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re also joined on the telephone by one member of a Cherokee couple named Dawn McKinley. Her legal advocate, David Cornsilk, is also on the phone with us. Can you talk about your union with your partner, and what has happened in Cherokee Nation? Also a tribal council vote has taken place. Welcome, Dawn.

DAWN McKINLEY: Well, we were able to get the license. They didn’t have a problem at all issue issuing us a license. And I would like to set straight, we did not go get the license to be activists or to upset anybody. We took an opportunity that was presented to us, and it was something that we believe that we have the right to do, and we just wanted our marriage to be recognized more than anything in our nation, and just — we’re not hurting anybody by our marriage. We live our lives. A lot of these people that are throwing the fit and upset with this, since this came out last year, May 13, when we were issued the license, they don’t know us. We don’t interact with them. They have nothing to do with us. So, we’re not hurting them. And I felt we have got a outpour of support, but not from our nation, as I thought we would. You know, it was their laws that we were able to get married by, and now they want to change them, or they already have changed them, but when they did change them, they did not give us the opportunity to stand up and speak and hear our voice. They decided for us out of — you can ask David. David was it 12 that voted for it? And they didn’t — they didn’t ask us. And like the chief of the Navajo said, they didn’t take it to the people. You know, who are those people to decide for us?

AMY GOODMAN: David Cornsilk, how many people are on the tribal council? How many voted for and against? In Navajo land, it was unanimous.

DAVID CORNSILK: There are 15 council members serving on the Cherokee Nation council, representing approximately 250,000 enrolled Cherokee citizens. And it was unanimous.

AMY GOODMAN: How significant now is what has taken place? This union — Dawn, when were you married? When did you have your commitment ceremony?

DAWN McKINLEY: We had our ceremony on May 18 and —

AMY GOODMAN: And how long had you been together?

DAWN McKINLEY: We had been together five years.

AMY GOODMAN: And the response of your community for the years that you have been together?

DAWN McKINLEY: The response on our community?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes. From your community, have you felt support? Have you felt alienation?

DAWN McKINLEY: No. You know, we haven’t really had any either way. I mean, we lived together as a married couple the last five years. Nobody has paid any attention to us until we got this license. Nobody — you know, they could care less what we were doing, as long as we didn’t go to try to get married. And now that we have this license, they’re all up busy in our stuff and want to know what’s going on. And they all have an opinion now.

AMY GOODMAN: I understand a national organization, David Cornsilk, is going to take on this case. Can you talk about that?

DAVID CORNSILK: We received a call from an attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and they were very excited to have the opportunity to represent Kathy and Dawn in the tribal court, and have offered whatever level of services they have at their disposal, all the way from simply writing motions and briefs to having full-out representation by one of their staff attorneys. And we have opted for having full representation. Up to the present time, Kathy and Dawn have been in tribal district court unrepresented. And so that case has been handled by them writing their own briefs and motions, and the district court ruled against them, I believe, in direct contradiction to tribal law. And they wrote an appeal to the tribal supreme court, called the Judicial Appeals Tribunal, and that court has agreed with us that the lower court lacks jurisdiction in this case. But the case can be — probably will be very complicated. We’re very excited to have a national organization with its resources and legal expertise step up to assist in preserving this marriage certificate.

AMY GOODMAN: Final comment, Dawn McKinley, as we move to another segment in Native America. Your thoughts now on taking this to the tribal courts?

DAWN McKINLEY: Well, you know, you always hope for the best outcome. We always hope that we can file it, and we can go on with our lives, and you know, how many people have to sit a year later still hoping to file their marriage license? Not very many, but no matter what happens and what comes out of this, the one thing they can’t take away from us, and that’s our love for each other, and our lives. We’re still going to be together and we’re still going to live our lives together, and they can’t take that away from us. No matter what they do. No matter what they decide on this. And like I said, we just hope that it comes out for the best, but if it doesn’t, we still have each other, and that’s what matters.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dawn McKinley and David Cornsilk, I want to thank you very much for joining us. We’re going to stay on the line with Navajo President, Joe Shirley, to talk about the ban on uranium mining, and in a related story on the issue of gay marriage, New York’s highest court ruled just this past Friday that the mayor of the village of New Paltz will face local prosecution for violating domestic relations law. Last year, the mayor, Jason West, oversaw the marriage of 19 same sex couples. If convicted, he faces a year in jail.

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Energy Exploitation and the Ban on Uranium Mining in Navajo Country

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