The Little Traverse Bay Bands (LTBB) of Odawa Indians in Harbor Springs, Michigan, made history March 3 when their council voted 5-4 to legally recognize same-sex marriages on their reservation. This was the second time in as many years the proposed statute was brought up for a vote by the council, who rejected it by an identical vote of 5-4 last summer. At a council member’s request – and touted as a deciding factor in the law’s passage – a provision was added to the statute requiring at least one member of the same-sex couple be a tribal citizen. LTBB Chairman Dexter McNamara signed the statute into law on March 15.
Having passed the sometimes-contentious legislation, the tribe hopes to be a trendsetter for other tribes in Michigan and throughout Indian country and is hoping they have opened the door for other tribes to follow. They have now joined at least two other tribes in the United States who recognize same-sex marriages; the Coquille Tribe in North Bend, Oregon, and the Suquamish Tribe in Suquamish, Washington.
Within minutes of the Waganakising Odawak Marriage Statute being signed by McNamara, the tribe again made history by performing a marriage ceremony for two men who recently celebrated their 30th anniversary. Tim LaCroix, 53, a member of the tribe and Gene Barfield, 60, became the first same-sex couple in Michigan to exchange rings and a kiss in front of family and friends at the tribe’s administrative complex during a ceremony that blended traditional Native culture with Western vows. During the ceremony, a maple sapling was bent into a hoop and cedar, sage, tobacco and sweetgrass were tied to it. The sweetgrass was lit and the hoop moved over and around the couple to invite good spirits while warding off bad ones. As the tribal chairman pronounced them married, the men joyfully embraced and accepted congratulatory handshakes and hugs from those around them.
“This is about tribal people being happy,” McNamara said. “My vote was the deciding vote and it was in my heart to pass the same-sex marriage resolution. To me it was a constitutional issue; everyone gets equal rights as spelled out in the preamble of our constitution.” He said he is happy to report he has been approached by another tribal chairman in Michigan who may be considering changes to his tribe’s marriage law and asked him for a copy of LTBB’s new marriage statute. McNamara believes it’s just a matter of time before changes will occur at the state level as well.
Michigan prohibits same-sex marriages under an amendment to the state Constitution passed by voters in 2004 and also does not recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
Newlywed Tim LaCroix said, “When the day came and presented itself we seized the moment and we are extremely happy about it. I can’t say enough about our tribe doing that for us,” he said. Tim’s proud husband, Gene Barfield, said, “That they [the tribe] created this opportunity is incredibly important in so many ways – even in today’s day and age when there are gay people on TV, in Congress and LGBT people all over the place – it is still incredibly important for communities to stand up and act on equality. Every time a signal like this gets sent, the door is pushed open a little wider and there is more room for people to live their lives.”
Denise Petoskey is the HR director for the LTBB and was one of two women who pushed for the resolution to be brought back to the council for a vote. The other sponsor of the statute was the tribe’s Communication’s Coordinator, Annette VanDeCar. Petoskey said, “We have an equal protection clause in our constitution that states no one within our jurisdiction can be denied equal protection of the laws and it seemed like the ban on same-sex marriages was a glaring example of not having equal justice. We are a fairly small community and I think it’s [the new law] representative of our traditional values of respect, love and honesty. Even if people don’t totally understand it, I think they accept that it is a matter of individual choice.”
Cherie Dominic is a LTBB citizen and works for the tribe’s Office of Citizen’s Legal Assistance – she is also a young lesbian. She said tribes today are faced with a difficult situation because there is often conflict between traditional tribal values and modern values influenced by western culture. “I feel that LTBB’s adoption of same-sex marriage advances tribal sovereignty and self-determination by utilizing the tribe’s own values and principles as its source of law, instead of conforming to outside sources. It’s amazing to me, I am still in the glow of what has happened,” she said. “It’s really big for Indian country.”
Barfield said as far as he and Tim are concerned they are legally married. “The tribe is sovereign and this is a duly passed law and we happened to be lucky enough to be first in line,” he said. We are not really inclined to put our marriage up to a vote – it would be good in all respects for marriage equality to become the law of the entire land and that is what we really look forward to.
“The Constitution to me has always been a living breathing thing and it grows with us. This is part of its growth,” Barfield said. “When you think about the institution of marriage itself having such a difficult time, I can’t help but think that all these other people who are trying to buy into that institution can’t help but strengthen it. We are not trying to break marriage; we are a part of marriage now. We want marriage to be a good thing for everybody.
“I wish people would tread lightly in each other’s lives,” he said.
The happy couple is planning a wedding reception on their 30-acre farm in Boyne City in July. Calling it a news-breaking party, LaCroix said the Democratic National Committee has expressed an interest in doing a marriage equality event and may hold that in conjunction with their reception.