Suquamish Tribe Approves Same-Sex Marriage

The Suquamish are a Native American tribe living in Kitsap County, Washington, west of Seattle, where the Port Madison Reservation has about 6,500 residents. Monday, “The Suquamish Tribal Council formally changed its ordinances to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples,” making it, as far as I can tell, the second Native American tribe to officially do so.

The decision followed a four-year camapign by Seattle’s Heather Purser, who grew up in Kitsap County and comes from the Suquamish tribe.

The story of how the change was sort of forced through by the membership of the tribe at large is pretty amazing. Here’s the account from the Kitsap Sun:

Purser, a 28-year-old who lives in Seattle but was raised in Kitsap County, has been trying to get the tribe’s law changed for about four years. She made the most progress at the tribe’s general council in March.During that meeting of the tribe’s entire enrolled membership, she stepped to the microphone asking for recognition for gay couples. The tribe’s leadership said they would continue to consider it, she said.

When Purser sat down people around her told her she needed to get up again and request a vote of the entire audience.

“One of my cousins said, ‘They’re just going to keep dragging their feet,’” Purser said.

She once again made her request, this time asking for a vote and expecting some opposition. “I was expecting a major fight. I didn’t think anyone would support me,” she said.

If there were any dissenters, they were not loud enough for Purser to hear them.

“Really it was the Suquamish people who approved this,” she said. “The general council is really what made everything happen.”


The new law applies to any two unmarried adults, regardless of sex, provided at least one of them is “an enrolled member of the Suquamish Tribe.”

According to the Kitsap Sun, the first same-sex marriage by an Indian tribe occurred in 2009, by the Coquille Indian Tribe in Coos Bay, Oregon, marrying two women from Edmonds, Washington. An attempt to legalize same-sex marriage within the Navajo tribe failed in 2005.

Because of the uniquely sovereign nature of tribal governments under U.S. law, the tribal council is legally entitled to take this action just as a state would be. But outside of the reservation, the Suquamish ordinance only affects jurisdictions that decide to recognize same-sex marriages conducted elsewhere.  Currently six states and the District of Colombia issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but only two states recognize same-sex marriages from other states. Washington state has a domestic partner law, in which same-sex couples receive almost all the rights of married couples.

Heather Purser has no immediate plans to get married, but wanted to make sure the option existed, for herself and for other members of the Suquamish tribe. She made another important point about the benefits of same-sex marriage being legalized:

Purser said gays who are open about it are an extreme minority within the tribe and that she hopes this change may encourage some members to feel more comfortable acknowledging publicly their homosexuality.


Congratulations to Purser and all the members of the Suquamish tribe who had the nerve to stand up for what’s right!

Image: AP Photo of Heather Purser by Elaine Thompson, from the Beaumont Enterprise.


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