Thursday, January 19, 2006

NDN NEWZ: Gay Marriage for the Cherokee

My comments follow the article. Please take a moment to read them; I know they are lengthy, and I apologize in advance.....

Gay Marriage in Cherokee a "Pioneering Case"

SAN FRANCISCO- The top court of the Cherokee Nation has declined to strike down a gay marriage in what is seen as a pioneering case in American Indian country, the couple and officials said on Wednesday.

Cherokee tribal members Kathy Reynolds, 29, and Dawn McKinley, 34, married in May 2004 in Oklahoma, just weeks after the city of San Francisco ignited a national debate on gay marriage by briefly allowing same-sex couples to wed.

Gay rights advocates say the pair are the first registered same-sex marriage in Indian country.

Because tribal law at the time allowed same-sex marriages, a tribal clerk gave them a wedding certificate. But members in the Tribal Council sued, saying the marriage would damage the reputation of the Cherokees, and the law was later changed.

In a December 22 decision announced on Wednesday, the Judicial Appeals Tribunal of the Cherokee Nation, the tribe's highest court in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, rejected the request for an injunction against the marriage.

"Members of the Tribal Council, like private Cherokee citizens, must demonstrate a specific particularized harm," the court ruled. "In the present case, the Council members fail to demonstrate the requisite harm."

Historians say Native American culture before the arrival of European settlers tolerated homosexuality, although the settlers' religious teachings ultimately turned the tribes against it.

"Since the tribe has become so Westernized and adopted Christian religions and European ways, they strayed away from traditional Cherokee values of indifference, " Reynolds told Reuters. "Cherokees are very private where they respect each other and respect how they live."

Reynolds, a graduate student, said she had lived together with McKinley, who works in the retail industry, for four years before they opted to wed. Both women said their friends and family welcomed their decision although tribal officials disapproved.

I have strong feelings about this.

But first, some background information to prevent confusion and to educate: I should point out that while I am in fact Cherokee...I am not of this Band. Many people have the mistaken notion that all Cherokee are of the same Tribe, and are all governed by the Tribal government in Tahlequah. We are all Cherokee, that is true....but the Cherokee of the Eastern Band in North Carolina (of which I am a member) and the Cherokee of Oklahoma are, for all intents and purposes, seperate people (also please note: there are three federally recognized Cherokee tribes -- the Cherokee Nation, the Eastern band of Cherokee Indians, and the United Keetoowah Band). We have different governments, and one is not ruled by the other. When I first visited Oklahoma in 1994, I even discovered that our common language, Tsalagi (whose written form was invented by our famous scholar, Sequoyah), is different now, after the many years of seperation. The language is the same...but there are minor differences, noticable to the life-long speaker. We easily understood one another, but there were slang terms I did not recognize and inflections and pronounciations that were somewhat different. This is really only to be expected; we have been seperate for over a century. It took less time than that for the American colonies to "bastardize the King's English," after all. But to get back to the point....this ruling has no effect on the Eastern Band. It does, however, have an effect on all Cherokee....we may be seperate, but we are still all Aniyunwiya, and so it does have an effect on me, as it does bind some of my people.

Another important piece of background information lies in our beliefs concerning homosexuals, beliefs which pre-date European settlement. Now, many Cherokee beliefs cannot be discussed with "outsiders," and it is strictly forbidden to commit some of these beliefs to writing. This is not one of those beliefs covered by the Taboos, so I may speak freely of it here...and I feel it's important to understand this belief, in order to understand WHY gay marriage is such a hotly-debated topic in Cherokee country. It's also important to note that this concept is not relegated to Cherokees alone: many Tribes believe in the idea of the Two-Spirited person.

So what is a Two-Spirited person? "Two-Spirit" refers to a belief that some people manifest both masculine and feminine spiritual qualities. Many tribes once revered Two-Spirits, viewing them as a third gender, seperate from purely male and purely female genders, and just as natural and normal. Two-Spirits were often counselors, storytellers and healers (this is different than the role of the bedarche in other Tribes: a male who embodied female characteristics and took on a female role in Tribal society). Two-Spirited people were not ostracized, and homophobia was an alien concept. That changed, of course, with the coming of the missionaries and the fundamentalist Christian view of homosexuality as sin. Sadly, Two-Spirited people began to suffer discrimination and worse at the hands of their own people, people who once accepted them and welcomed them. This is beginning to change now in many areas, as Tribal peoples work towards a more pre-Columbus tolerance, and as the Two-Spirited people themselves work for rights and recognition.

One of the portions of the article above that gives a really unique insight into the Cherokee mindet is this: "Since the tribe has become so Westernized and adopted Christian religions and European ways, they strayed away from traditional Cherokee values of indifference, " Reynolds told Reuters. "Cherokees are very private where they respect each other and respect how they live." This live-and-let-live sort of philosophy is really at the heart of so many issues facing the Cherokee today: where do we draw the line between public issues and private matters? Our concept of privacy tends to be much more evolved and crucial to daily life than the general American one. "Indifference" is probably not the best word to describe it...that gives the reader the idea that we do not care. We do care, we just don't think the private matters of others should be public fodder for the masses to chew upon. It all boils down to the basic precept of our spiritual and cultural beliefs: that every person has their own individual Path, and no one else can walk that Path or judge it accordingly. That is at the heart of why the Two-Spirited people were so accepted in Cherokee society. We truly felt it was none of our business; it was their Path, and between them and the Creator. The idea that we would turn them out or legislate against them was unthinkable.

Another quote from the article explains just WHY we would not legislate or condemn the Two-Spirited people in pre-contact Cherokee society is this: "Members of the Tribal Council, like private Cherokee citizens, must demonstrate a specific particularized harm, " the court ruled. "In the present case, the Council members fail to demonstrate the requisite harm." The Two-Spirited people harmed no one. And in our beliefs, the only reason a person's Path could ever be questioned or scrutinized is if it caused harm to others...that is unacceptable. That would be impeding on the other's Path. In today's lingo: your rights end where the next person's begin. You cannot allow your quest to adversly affect another's. This is at the heart of our spirituality, our culture, and our laws. It's not a bad way to live.

But centuries of European conquest and often forced religious conversions and adherence have left their mark on Cherokee Tribal peoples, and perhaps it is no more evident than in the case of the Two-Spirited. Traditionalists and adherents to the "old ways" believe that we should once again embrace the Two-Spirited into our communities; the predominately Christian modernists believe that gay people are in fact sinning against the Creator, and to embrace them would be to embrace sin. The traditionalists argue that homosexuality is a private matter; the modernists argue that to allow gays to marry would be to erode male-female marriage. It is not too different from the gay marriage debate anywhere else in America, with one group arguing that rights are meant for all, and another claiming that gays should not have "special rights for their alternative lifestyle."

That brings me, finally, to the article.

I question the motives of the Council members who sued, claiming that the marriage of Reynolds and McKinely would "damage the reputation of the Cherokee." HOW would it damage our reputation? And why do we care what others think of our Tribe and its laws? So often, I have heard other laws in Tribal lands defended by claiming that the misunderstandings of others is not our concern. We live by OUR laws, and have fought hard to do so. So why now are we caring what others think of those laws? After fighting so hard to gain our rights, why do we wish to throw them away so that others won't think less of us? And truly, those who WILL think less of us....aren't they going to think badly of us, one way or the other, these people who are standing by to judge the Cherokee? How many times have I heard it said that since we will be misunderstood and misrepresented in any event...we should simply follow our own laws, our own beliefs, and leave it to the Creator to judge? How many times have we in NDN Country defended not only our right to have our own laws, but those laws themselves, by strongly insisting that we are in fact different from the American government and we need our own laws, as our legal system and concepts are different from those of mainstream America? Now, suddenly, we want to change our laws to fit those of mainstream Conservative America? Now, suddenly, we fear the judgement of others on OUR laws? And who exactly ARE these people, standing by, waiting to judge us by who we allow and don't allow to marry? Most of what happens in NDN Country is ignored by mainstream America....why this should be any different, is beyond me.

I fear those who sued were motivated not by concerns for our "reputation" (which is certainly contrary to our usual live-and-let-live attitude), but by their own discomfort with gay marriage. And that is unpardonable. They used their power as Council members to attempt to impede another's Path. It's abominable. It goes against everything that we as a people stand for.

I am pleased that the injunction against this marriage was refused. I am disappointed that the law has been changed, and such marriages are now impossible....for the time being.

People of the Cherokee, listen up! We cannot allow the beliefs of others to dictate our own. We cannot allow the scrutiny of others to impede us from doing what is right. We cannot allow our ancestors, who fought so hard for our right to rule ourselves, to have fought in vain. Now is the time to stand firm. If we wish to have a reputation, let it be one of tolerance and acceptance. Do not stand in another's Path...let him walk through and find his way as the Creator intended. And let us not stand in the way of love. For that is the Creator's greatest gift....let us not be known as those who would abhore it.

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At 9:08 AM, Blogger Fizz said...

Hear! Hear!

At 11:19 AM, Blogger Pixie LaRouge said...

That's just an awesome post. Thought of you when I read the article the other day and wondered what your take on it was. Had a feeling you'd say something much like that :)

At 4:59 PM, Anonymous Synesthesia said...

What an awesome way to look at things...
I so agree with that philosophy...

At 5:47 PM, Anonymous Spence said...

Wado (Thank you). As a Two Spirit trying to return to the Red Path your article warmed me after finding multiple negative things from those that are supposed to be our peoples.

Yours in the Struggle,
Spence C. Carver-Leonard
(Not yet named in my tribe)

At 11:44 PM, Anonymous Isaac G said...

Thank God some of my ancestors on my dads side actually acknowledge people like me!

At 1:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

love the article! what a wonderful world it must have been at on time!

At 4:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thankyou for your blog! I'm a 52 yr old man , who currently is trying regenerate my immediate family's need to become recognized tribal members! I look around at the pain and suffering in my family, I know mow and feel in my heart is they have for too long , left their true path , and assimulated into white society! Thankyou again

At 6:19 PM, Blogger George said...

Thank you for your information on Homosexuality -- Two-Spirited people. Both of my Grandmothers were full blooded Cherokee but I haven't claimed my American Native heritage as my family, even my grandmothers, didn't claim their heritage. I have been with my life partner for 31 plus years. Most people and even my minister known that we are a gay couple and respect that even though I live in the heart of the Bible belt. Again thank you for the information.


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