The Navajo Nation has prohibited same-sex marriage since 2005, when the Diné Marriage Act was passed. Now, critics are challenging that ban.
As the largest reservation in the U.S., the Navajo Nation straddles the borders of three states: New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Utah has been embroiled in its own same-sex marriage battle recently (the state halted gay marriages Monday).
But these state laws do not affect the Navajo Nation ban.
Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More, recently sat down with Deswood Tome, a special adviser to the president of the Navajo Nation, and activist Alray Nelson of the Coalition for Navajo Equality.
What could have been a contentious debate instead sounded like a friendly discussion. Nelson and Tome are former colleagues and think of each other as friends. Nelson even went so far as to say that he has always looked to the elder Tome as a bit of a father figure.
Still, the conversation between the two revealed both differing generational perspectives and the debate that folks around the country continue to grapple with.
Deswood Tome on why same-sex marriage isn't a top priority of the Navajo Nation
I spoke to some people out in the community, including a chapter secretary in western Navajo, and she said to me that this is not an issue that affects us here, at the local, grass-roots area. They're more concerned about job creation, health, education. Even my colleague at the speaker's office, Darrell Tso, says that this is not on the agenda of the Navajo Nation Council at this time.
Alray Nelson on why this issue is personally important to him
I grew up traditional, my grandparents taught me about love, they taught me about respect, as well as the sacredness of having a family. So ... let's say that my partner and I decide to get married in California, or let's say we go to Albuquerque ... the state recognizes it, and so I can come back here home ... and the Navajo government will not recognize the rights and the benefits I deserve. They will not recognize the rights and the benefits my partner deserves.
Deswood Tome on what must happen if the Navajo code is to change
Here's the challenge I want to put to Alray. Alray, if you go out there and make this an issue, then the Navajo government will address it. Start at the grass roots. Start at the chapters. Go to the agency council meetings ... there's a process, and you know that. You know how to effectively organize. And that's how this will come up.
Alray Nelson on why the Coalition for Navajo Equality will continue to push for marriage equality
This call for an end of discrimination because of the Diné Marriage Act comes from the roots of what family means ... It comes back down to health care choices, your life benefit choices, Navajo child adoption (currently, right now, it says that a Navajo man and woman ... can only adopt in the Navajo nation.)
And lastly, of course, is this idea of having a homesite lease. To have a homesite lease here on Navajo, it's a piece of paper where your community members, your family members acknowledge a union that you both share. It's for you to build a home where you're from. Navajo Nation is always going to be a home for LGBTQ individuals, we have always had a role here in a Navajo society and we are not going nowhere.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, it's college application season, and there's been a lot of handwringing over why many colleges and universities are not more diverse. Now one scholar tells us that many top students from diverse backgrounds don't even apply to the schools, and they would do fine if they did. We'll hear more about that later. But first, we're going to talk about an issue that's playing out across the country, and that issue is same-sex marriage. Now same-sex marriage is banned in 32 states, but it is permitted in 18 states and the District of Columbia.
Just this week, same-sex marriages were stopped in Utah while the state appeals an earlier court decision allowing them. So you can see that the law right now is a patchwork and it is evolving. And that is also true in Indian country, which brings us to the Navajo Nation. It is the largest reservation in the U.S., both in size and population. It straddles the borders of three states - New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Now the Navajo Nation currently prohibits marriage between persons of the same sex, but activists are now challenging that ban.
We wanted to talk about this so we've called two people with different perspectives on the issue. Deswood Tome is a special advisor to the president of the Navajo Nation. And Alray Nelson is with the Coalition for Navajo Equality. That aims to end the ban on gay marriage. And they both join us from KGLP in Gallup, New Mexico. Thank you both so much for joining us.
ALRAY NELSON: Thank you, Michel, for having us here today.
DESWOOD TOME: Thank you, Michel. Deswood here.
MARTIN: So, Mr. Tome, let me start with you. The nation passed a law banning same-sex marriage in 2005. It also, at the same time, banned plural marriage and marriage between close relatives. Do you remember why? This was the Dine Marriage Act of 2005, and it had a number of acts addressing - it had a number of amendments to the Navajo Nation code. Do you remember why?
TOME: This was brought on by council delegate Larry Anderson at the time. And he wanted to really define marriage as being a sacred institution according to our fundamental law on the Navajo Nation.
MARTIN: So was there some overall kind of push at that time to revisit all of the codes according to, kind of, fundamental values? Or were there specific things that were of concern?
TOME: Well, the context at the time was the LGBTQ community was rising up, and at the time, the Navajo people, especially the traditional's and the elders, they wanted to keep marriages between a man and a woman. And even in our Navajo language, they say (Navajo spoken) - meaning the man and the woman are being made together. There's no language at all to say that a man and a man or a woman and a woman are being made into one.
MARTIN: Alray Nelson, your group, as we said, is working to repeal this 2005 law. But I take it your argument is not the fact that New Mexico now permits same-sex marriage or even the fact that the Supreme Court - the United States Supreme Court permitted federal benefits to same-sex couples as of past June. So what is your argument?
NELSON: Our argument, first off, is for us to understand where our leaders are talking about this issue. They're bringing it to a place where they're saying Navajo tradition says this this way - our fundamental law states it in disrespect.
However, I grew up traditional. My grandparents taught me about love. They taught me about respect and as well as also the sacredness of having a family. So an example of this, Michel, is that, let's say my partner and I decide to get married in California. Or let's say we go to Albuquerque, where I graduated from, from the University there. And we decide to get a marriage license. The state recognizes it. And so I can come back here home and, you know, I'm coming back here home a Navajo. And the Navajo government will not recognize my rights and the benefits that I deserve. It will not recognize the rights and benefits that my partner deserves.
MARTIN: Let me hear more about that in a minute. But can I ask, Mr. Deswood Tome, is there any precedent for figuring something like this out?
TOME: Well, the only precedent that comes to my mind is before 1945, Navajo men could have more than one wife. In 1945, the Navajo Tribal Council repealed that and made it to where a man can only have one wife.
MARTIN: And was that to bring the Navajo code in line with the prevailing law? Just to clarify for people who may not be aware that the Native American tribes in the U.S. are semi-sovereign. And they have a right to regulate these issues. What was the impetus for that? Do you remember?
TOME: It was to bring us into compliance with laws surrounding us so that we would be the same. And in a traditional way, it was more of an economic outlook that a man was a provider of the family. And so people look to a man like that to be the economic livelihood in the community, and that's why he was more permitted to have more than one wife.
MARTIN: So what about now? How do people feel about the fact that, well, now the law in New Mexico has changed?
TOME: Well, I spoke to some people out in the community, including the chapter secretary in Western Navajo, and she said to me that this is not an issue that affects us here at the local, grassroots area. They're more concerned about job creation, health, education. Even my colleague at the speaker's office, Darrell Tso, says that this is not on the agenda of the Navajo Nation Council at this time.
MARTIN: Mr. Nelson, what do you say about that?
NELSON: Well, first off, we have to understand that the Navajo nation is a nation within a nation. And what's occurring on a national level also affects the Navajo nation government. However, we are in the process of moving forward to challenge this before a Navajo District Court judge because we don't feel our leaders are capable right now to inform and advocate for the LGBTQ community. And...
MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit more, though, if you would - you started to talk about this earlier...
MARTIN: ...Why legal marriage rights are very important.
NELSON: Yes, Michel, there are five different methods of contracting Navajo marriage here at home. First off, you have to sign a Navajo marriage license in the presence of two witnesses. That's one way. Another way is going through local clergymen according to the rights of any church. The third way is to go get your marriage license signed by a Navajo judge, and witnesses have to be there. Another way is in a traditional Navajo wedding ceremony.
And the fifth way is by common law. Let's say my partner and I want to get a marriage license through common law or by a Navajo judge. Here at home, on Navajo land, we're not allowed to do that. And the reason why say this is a major issue for Navajo is because Navajo families have an LGBTQ individual there. We are your sons. We are your daughters. We are your relatives. We're not going anywhere.
So I don't want a Navajo government here telling our LGBTQ couples to go ahead and leave the Navajo nation and get married in New Mexico, get married in the other 18 states across the U.S. but not here at home where you belong, where your place is. And so that's the reason why we're fighting right now for that right to go ahead and have that marriage license.
MARTIN: Mr. Tome, I wanted to ask you that there are a couple of tribes - there are some Native American tribes that do recognize same-sex marriage. And I'm thinking of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe in Oklahoma, the Coquille Indians in Oregon. There's a California tribe that does recognize same-sex marriage.
And I think part of the basis of it is the argument that is in alignment with tradition as they understand it. As they understand it, they believe that there were people who manifest both a male and female spirit and that they are two spirit people, if I'm using the term correctly. And I just wondered if that argument, Mr. Tome, had been made to the leadership of the nation and how they respond to that.
TOME: The Navajo Nation at this time, is not looking at legalizing marriage between a man and a man and a woman and a woman. I want to touch on something that Alray's talking about. The president is not against gay people. In fact, four years ago when he ran for president, a lot of the LGBTQ community was behind him. And even Alray and myself took then, Vice President Shelly who was running for president - we took him to a gay pride parade in Albuquerque, New Mexico. And the president regards gay people as what they call Ashla'ii Dine, meaning that they're five-fingered people. They're just - we're are all the same.
MARTIN: Well, but - could I ask you about how, then, you respond to Alray Nelson's point that this refusal to engage the issue conveys to this community that they are not fully members of the community? And I just wanted to ask if you could respond to that.
TOME: Well, here's the challenge I want to put to Alray. Alray, if you go out there and make this an issue and the Navajo government will address it. Start with the grassroots, start at the chapters, go to the agency council meetings and bring it in through - there's a process, and you know that. You know how to effectively organize. I mean - and that's how this will become - this will come up.
MARTIN: What about that, Mr. Nelson?
MARTIN: What about that?
NELSON: Well, first off, Michel, this law in '05 was actually a reactionary law to what was happening on a national level. You had President Bush that was pushing for a constitutional amendment back in 2004 and going on to '05. And so as we transition forward, yes we will go out there and speak to the Navajo people. The first opportunity we're going to have is we actually have a couple Navajo couples that are in the process of filing a case before a Navajo judge 'cause we feel that's the first avenue we're going to take and challenge this law before a Navajo court judge on the idea that it discriminates against Navajo families.
The second avenue on our strategy, as well, is also reaching out to Navajo lawmakers. This call for an end of discrimination because of the Dine Marriage Act comes from the roots of what family means, Michel. You know, it comes back down to health care choices, your life benefit choices, Navajo child adoption. Currently right now, it says that a Navajo man and woman are - jointly can only adopt in the Navajo Nation. And lastly, of course, is this idea of having a homesite lease. To have a homesite lease here on Navajo - it's a piece of paper where your community members, your family members acknowledge the union that you both share. It's for you to build a home where you're from. Navajo Nation's always going to be a home for LGBTQ individuals onwards. We've always had a role here in the Navajo society, and we are not going nowhere.
MARTIN: Alray Nelson is an activist with the Coalition for Navajo Equality. He joined us from KGLP in Gallup, New Mexico, along with Deswood Tome. He is a special advisor to the president of the Navajo Nation. I thank you both so much for speaking with us about this important and sensitive issue. And I hope we'll speak again.
NELSON: Thank you, Michel.
TOME: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.