COOS BAY, Oregon - Kitzen and Jeni Branting have been in a committed
lesbian relationship since high school and plan to get legally married
in Oregon next spring.
Yes, in Oregon.
True, voters amended the state Constitution constitution in 2004 to
allow marriage only between only a man and a woman. And Congress
outlawed gay marriage more than a decade ago.
But Kitzen Branting, 25, is a member of the Coquille Indian Tribe on the southern Oregon coast.
As a federally recognized sovereign nation, the tribe is not bound
by the Oregon's Constitution. The tribe recently adopted a law that
recognizes same-sex marriage and extends to gay and lesbian partners,
at least one of whom must be a Coquille, all tribal benefits of
The Coquilles (which tribal leaders prefer to pronounce KO-kwell)
are probably the first tribe in the nation to legalize same-sex
marriage, says Brian Gilley, a University of Vermont anthropology
professor and author of the book, "Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity
and Social Acceptance in Indian Country."
Many Native American tribes historically accepted same-sex
relationships, Gilley says. But after a lesbian couple married under an
ambiguous Cherokee law in Oklahoma three years ago, that tribe's
council adopted a law banning same-sex marriage. Other tribes across
the nation, including the Navajos, the nation's largest tribe, passed
similar bans, he says.
Because the Coquilles have federal status, a marriage within the
tribe would be federally recognized, Gilley says. And that would
violate the Defense of Marriage Act, a law that says
the federal government "may not treat same-sex relationships as marriages for any purpose."
The federal government could challenge the Coquille law as a way of testing the limits of tribal independence.
"This could be a test of sovereignty," he says.
The tribe concluded that the Defense of Marriage Act may bar the
tribe from conferring federal benefits or money on same-sex spouses,
said Melissa Cribbins, assistant tribal attorney.
Ken Tanner of Ashland, chief of the Coquilles, gathered Friday with
two tribal attorneys and a reporter in the plankhouse in Coos Bay. The
2-year-old meeting hall was built in traditional
style but on a larger scale with hand-crafted cedar plank walls and
hand-peeled pillars of timber. A simple broad bench fringes the hall,
which is open and empty save for the smell of cedar.
In a brief prayer, Tanner called on the grandfather creator to bless
the building and then took a seat with the others on log sections
around a gas fire at one end of the hall.
Native Americans are "sensitive to discrimination of any kind," says
Tanner. "For our tribe, we want people to walk in the shoes of other
people and learn to respect differences. Through
that, we think we build a stronger community."
The new law establishes tribal rules for recognizing marriage,
whether for gay or heterosexual couples. It won't take effect until the
tribe also creates laws for divorce and child custody, tribal attorney
Brett Kenney says. The seven-member tribal council expects to adopt
such laws next year.
As a practical matter, Jeni and Kitzen Branting, whose maiden name
is Doyle and who legally adopted Jeni's last name three years ago,
already have the tribal benefits of marriage.
That's because part of the new law already is in effect, recognizing
marriages and domestic partnerships legally established in states and
countries. The Brantings entered a legal domestic
partnership in Washington last year, and the tribe sees the partnership as tantamount to marriage.
While Jeni Branting, 27, is not a tribal member, she is entitled to
tribal benefits as Kitzen's spouse, even though the couple plans to
move off tribal land next week to Edmonds, Wash., near Seattle, where
both grew up. Jeni Branting, for example, has applied for the Coquille
health care plan. She also is entitled to housing and fitness benefits
and access to tribal community events.
The tribe in recent years has become wealthy enough to provide
support to its 850 members, about half of whom live in Coos and four
The Brantings met in high school in Edmonds while working in theater
productions. They went on to attend The Evergreen State College in
Olympia, where they focused on Native American studies and graduated
last spring. They spent the past year living on tribal land and
studying Coquille culture and history for a senior project.
They were among several tribal members who urged the council about a year ago to consider establishing same-sex marriage.
"I wanted my tribal family to say, 'Yes, we recognize that you are
equal to any other tribal member, and you are just as important, and
your spouse should have the same rights as any
other spouse,' " Kitzen Branting says.
Kenney, the tribal attorney, said he could find no other tribe that
had legalized same-sex marriage.The culture committee reviewed tribal
history and concluded "same-sex domestic relations were accepted with
no exclusions from tribal citizenship, the community, auspices or
spiritual activities," reported Jack Lenox, the committee chairman.
The new law stirred "some strong feelings" among a minority of
tribal members who opposed it, Tanner said. Yet all but two members of
the council and a majority of 14 people who testified in a public
hearing supported it, tribal leaders said.
"I think it is going to have a very positive impact on this tribe," Tanner says.
Whatever opinions the wider world might express about the Coquilles'
new law, Kenney said, the act is for the tribe "a solemn, internal
And for the Brantings, it's personal.
They are planning a wedding for May in the plankhouse. Chief Tanner has agreed to officiate.
"We just want to have a celebration with our families," says Jeni. "We just want to do what everyone else does."