Brides Look Forward to Marrying Under Tribal Same-Sex Marriage Law

Tribal leaders say Coquille tribe may be the first to allow gay marriage.

Aug. 27, 2008— -- A request from a bride-to-be has led an Oregon Indian tribe to legalize same-sex marriage, a move leaders say may be the first of its kind in the United States.

The Coquille Indian Tribe now not only recognizes legal same-sex unions from state and federal governments, but it will soon be handing out its own marriage licenses not only to heterosexual couples, but to homosexual couples as well.

Kitzen Branting is like a lot of other brides who have come before her: She has already found her wedding dress, set a date for the ceremony and proudly wears her engagement ring.

But her journey to the altar has been a bit different than most, since she requested new tribal legislation sanctioning same-sex marriage. Branting, 25, and her fiancee, Jeni Branting, plan to be married in May under the tribe's new law.

'Recognition and Respect'

The high school sweethearts have already gathered all the legal documents they are allowed -- wills, powers of attorney and domestic partnership registry -- but they wanted a legal ceremony from the tribe in which Kitzen Branting was raised.

"What I asked them was to be willing to recognize homosexual marriages," she said.

Before the tribe ruled on Kitzen Branting's request in May, the Coquilles did not have a policy defining marriage and did not perform ceremonies or hand out marriage licenses of any kind. Like most other American Indian tribes, the Coquilles have their own laws and customs.

"Native Americans, more than anyone, know about discrimination," Coquille Indian Tribe Chief Ken Tanner told "Our directive is to provide recognition and respect to all members of our tribe."

The clause about issuing marriage licenses, however, will not go into effect until the tribe passes legislation on divorce and child custody procedures, according to Coquille tribe attorney Brett Kenney.

But Kenney said he's optimistic that the tribe will be performing marriages before Kitzen and Jeni Branting are ready to walk down the aisle in May.

"I have a deadline now," Kenney said, laughing.

Tanner, 68, said the tribe's law was not intended to make a statement about gay marriage or advocate for similar legislation from any other tribe or governing body.

"We have no interest whatsoever in this being a national interest of any kind," he said.

Looking for Acceptance, Not a Fight

Kitzen and Jeni Branting -- Kitzen legally took Jeni's last name three years ago -- signed up for the domestic partnership registry in their home state of Washington, but Kitzen Branting said getting married under tribal law means more to her than state or federal recognition.

"They're my family and we're a pretty small tribe and I have a close connection to them," Branting said. She remembers summers spent at youth camps and performances of traditional Coquille dances. "They are my immediate people."

Once married, Jeni Branting, 27, who is not a Coquille, will have the same rights as any other tribal spouse, including health insurance and the right to attend tribal functions.

Kitzen Branting said she approached the tribal council several years ago, but the issue was pushed aside for more pressing matters until another tribe member brought it back to the council's attention about a year ago.

The tribe held workshops for members in which the discussion was open for comments on all marriages, though the focus was mostly on the same-sex variety, Branting said.

Kenney said the tribe was in no way trying to pick a fight with the federal government, which partially funds some aspects of Coquille life, including education, natural resources and some health care.

"This is a very internal matter," he said.

In the Brantings' case, the couple -- who are in the process of moving out of Oregon and back to their native Edmonds, Wash. -- would receive tribal health-care benefits under a plan that is 100 percent funded by the tribe, Kenney said.

Sarah Deer, a tribal law attorney, said she doesn't see any reason why the federal government would or should intervene in the Coquille's marriage law, because the legislation does not involve any expenditure of federal funds.

Still, she said, "that's not to say they won't try."

Nedra Darling, spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, said the government had no reason to interfere.

"The tribes can dow this basically, because the tribes have the ability to regulate domestic relationships," she said.

The Coquille tribe, which is based in southwest Oregon and has about 860 members, received federal recognition in 1989.

Tanner said that there have been some tribe members who are displeased by the new legislation and that he appreciates their views just as he does the opinions of the law's supporters.

"Many people have expressed pride in the tribe's courage" to legalize same-sex marriage, Tanner said.

"We only ask that people respect differences and all the Creator's creations," he said.

Varying Tribal Law

Deer, who is a visiting professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn., and a victim advocacy legal specialist for the California-based Tribal Law and Policy Institute, said she also does not know of any other American Indian tribe that has sanctioned or legalized same-sex marriage, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

"Very few of them want to make a splash in mainstream culture," she said.

Some tribes, however, have signed documents banning gay marriage, including the Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation and the Navajo Nation, in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Many other tribes, Deer said, have marriage laws that are modeled after state and federal legislation, not necessarily because of the tribe's belief system, but because such tribal laws are typically drafted for the tribe by outside legal counsel.

Still, she said, it's not uncommon for tribes to issue their own marriage licenses or perform traditional wedding rituals.

"Any time a tribe asserts its own definition of a cultural norm ? it's better they do it on their own terms," Deer said.

'Ups and Downs'

Kitzen Branting, then Kitzen Doyle, was a freshman in high school when she met Jeni Branting. The girls' announcement of their sexual orientation was "bumpy," Kitzen Branting said.

The two are now considered permanent members of each others' families.

"We've definitely had our ups and downs over the years," she said. "But overall they've been very supportive."

The women have lived on the tribal reservation in Coos Bay, Ore., for about a year but they are moving back to Washington to live with Jeni Branting's grandmother who was widowed in January.

Nevertheless, Kitzen Branting said she will remain as involved with her tribe as she ever was. She is a Coquille descendent on her father's side, while her mother is Irish. The engagement ring she wears is a traditional Irish claddagh, while Jeni Branting sports a diamond.

So while the Coquille tribe works out the details of the new marriage laws, the two women continue planning for their wedding and are shopping for a second bridal dress.

And Tanner said he's going to marry the Brantings personally.