Gregory Smithers: Same-sex marriage within Cherokee culture

Gregory Smithers

Professor Gregory Smithers, the author of the forthcoming The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of Migration, Resettlement, and Identity, considers whether the Cherokee Nation and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians might change their laws against same-sex marriage after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a series of cases later this month:
The Eastern Band of Cherokees in North Carolina, with a population of approximately 13,000, and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, whose population exceeds 300,000, both hold strong positions against gay rights and same-sex marriage.

For gay Cherokee couples in North Carolina, their tribal government’s position on same-sex marriage is unequivocally clear. As the state of North Carolina has moved toward issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples over the past decade, the Eastern Band of Cherokees have passed laws that declare “the licensing and solemnizing of same-sex marriages are not allowed within this jurisdiction.”

Same-sex couples in the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma face similarly stark legal rejections of their relationships. The implications are profound. Communities are divided – sometimes bitterly so – over the issue; same-sex couples are legally defined as “roommates,” not spouses; and the support a partner can offer a hospitalized loved-one is limited by the discriminatory nature of Cherokee law. How did Cherokees, like so many other citizens of tribal nations, arrive at this point?

Marriage has a complicated history among the Cherokees. Traditionally, Cherokees belonged to one of seven matrilineal clans. Marriage was exogamous, meaning that couples wishing to marry must belong to different clans. Grandmothers, mothers, and the intended bride exercised considerable power in determining the fate of a potential marriage. For instance, when a young man wished to marry a woman he killed a deer and presented it to his intended bride as a gift. If the young woman chose to cook the deer meat it meant that she had decided to marry her suitor.

But traditions never stay the same. During the early nineteenth century, the Cherokees adopted marriage laws that resembled the patriarchal ideals of white, bourgeois Americans. And like states throughout the American South and West, the Cherokee Nation adopted laws that prohibited intermarriage with blacks.

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Gregory Smithers: Will Gay Marriage Split Indian Country? (Indian Country Today 5/30)

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