KBIC legalizes tribally sanctioned same-sex marriage

BARAGA – The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community legalized tribally sanctioned same-sex marriages Saturday, when it passed the third reading of amendments to its marriage ordinance. The amendments passed by a narrow 5-4 vote, with one abstention.

The meeting wasn’t heavily attended, but the vote was met with a smattering of applause. Tribal voters had given their support to same-sex marriage legislation in a nonbinding referendum in December, and Carole LaPointe, a former council member who proposed the referendum last year, said she was happy to see the result.

“Love should have no barriers,” LaPointe said. “If a woman loves a woman or a man loves a man, it shouldn’t matter. It’s no different for a woman and a man.

“Many same-sex couples have children, and they’re raised just the same.”

LaPointe’s daughter Bridget LaPointe and her partner Mariah Dunham, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said in December they hoped to marry if the legislation was successful.

“I think it’s the right direction,” agreed KBIC member Nikki Reenders-Arens in a later interview, adding she and her partner Audrey Reenders-Arens had already talked about marriage and planned to apply for a license soon. In December, she explained that despite already being joined in a civil union in IllinoiAudrey would have no legal right to their son, which Nikki had given birth to, if something was to happen to her.

“It’s important to the future,” she said. “It protects our son, and we’re finally being seen as equal.”

The extent to which the state of Michigan will recognize that equality will likely depend on a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court. Currently, Michigan does not recognize same-sex marriages regardless of origin, but that’s being challenged on the basis of the Constitution’s equal protection clause. A ruling on the case is expected this summer.

At the federal level, eligibility for spousal social security benefits depends on where an individual or couple resides. Tribally-married same-sex couples are eligible if they live on the reservation, but not if they live in a jurisdiction – for now the rest of Michigan – where same-sex marriage isn’t recognized.

The legislation was accomplished with minimal changes to the existing ordinance, which allows for the marriage of any Native American – not just KBIC members – to whomever they choose. The most significant amendments were changing references to marrying as “between a man and a women” to gender-neutral references to consenting adults.

Tribal council President Warren “Chris” Swartz, who spoke of the amendments as “two-spirit marriage” legislation, referring to the traditional Native conception of people with non-traditional sexual orientations, said the amendments would become law as soon as he could sign them Monday or Tuesday. Depending on administrative procedures, couples could begin applying for marriage licenses at the tribal courthouse by the end of the week.

Susan LaFernier, one of the council members who voted against the amendments, said she wasn’t necessarily against same-sex marriage, but “thought it was such a controversial issue that we should have taken more time,” and been more careful in the wording of amendments.

LaFernier said the tribe should also have taken the opportunity while making amendments to increase the legal age for marriage, and to change some of the wording on adoptions. Currently, the marriage ordinance allows for minors as young as 16 years old to marry if they had a guardian’s approval. Council member Eddy Edwards voted for the amendments with no apparent reservations.

“This acknowledges that people can love each other, whoever they may be,” he said. “We need all the love we can have in this world.”


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