Arts & Culture
7:50 am
Mon March 18, 2013

Northern Michigan tribe legalizes same sex marriage

A Native American tribe in northern Michigan has become one of the first in the nation to legalize same sex marriage.

The Tribal Chairman of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians signed a statute Friday to legalize same sex marriage. Just moments after Chairman Dexter McNamara gave the final swipe of his pen, he married two men from Boyne City.

After the exchange of vows, a more traditional Native American marriage ceremony took place. A tree branch in the shape of a hoop was placed in front of the newlyweds. The couple then tied the four medicines recognized by the tribe onto the hoop. Tobacco, cedar, sage and sweet grass were tried on to represent the four directions: east, south, west and north.

Fred Harrington is a member of the tribe who led the ceremony. He says the ceremony represents the four stages of life.

“They have this circle of life that’s a physical manifestation of the oath that they took for each other, they put up on the wall and every day they look at it and say it is us,” Harrington says.

Tim LaCroix and Gene Barfield have been together for 30 years and were the first to be legally married in the state of Michigan.

LaCroix is a member of the Odawa tribe.

“I’m so proud of my tribe, for doing this for Gene and I,” La Croix says. “It means a lot, not just for Gene and I but for all tribal members, for Native Americans in Michigan and elsewhere.

LaCroix’s new husband is not a member of the Little Traverse Bay Band. But Barfield will be able to get some tribal spousal benefits such as employment benefits. However, the marriage will not be recognized by the state of Michigan.

The same sex marriage statute within the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians has been a year in the making. It was first introduced by two women in the tribe who consider themselves what ethnographer’s would call “two spirit.” That’s someone who possesses both male and female qualities. And these people, who we would call gay, lesbian or transgender today, were highly respected by indigenous tribes across the U.S.

Denise Petoskey is a descendant of the family for which the neighboring city of Petoskey is named. She was one of the women who asked the tribal council last year to amend the marriage statute.

“We have a unique opportunity here to be inclusive and I think our sovereignty allows us to have equal rights and I thought if we could do it on a small scale in this community, then it could be I guess a template for other tribal nations and states to go the same route,” Petoskey says.

Last July the tribal council failed to pass the same sex marriage amendment by one vote. But one council member said she would support the legislation if it had language that required at least one of the partners be a tribal member. Once that language was changed, the measure was passed and Chairman Dexter McNamara signed the statute.

But not everyone is behind this statute. Mel Kiogima is the legislative leader of the tribal council and voted against the statute.

“My impression is the general feeling is that if this were to be put to a vote to our tribal citizens, that this would not pass,” Kiogima says.

But Chairman McNamara thinks that mindset will begin to change as the conversations about same sex marriage continue at the state and national level.

“I think there is going to be some changes down the road real soon and I think that us being the first tribe in the state of Michigan, I think there are going to be others that follow,” McNamara says

And that seems to be happening already. Just last week the tribal council for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi passed similar same sex marriage legislation.