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Same Sex Marriage and Indian Tradition

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 12, 2011

Thomas Say

The Suquamish tribe made the front page of today’s New York Times by permitting same sex marriage.  As the story notes, this isn’t a matter of conforming to modern trends, but of returning to old customs.  In The Species Seekers, I wrote about an explorer named Thomas Say, who joined the Long Expedition to the American West in 1819.

Say’s attitude toward the Indians was remarkably enlightened for that day, and he made it clear that Indian attitudes toward marriage, hunting, and other matters were far more advance than those of the white settlers.  In many tribes, he also reported, homosexuals are “publicly known, and do not appear to be despised, or to excite disgust.”

I liked this part of the NYT article:

Yet people involved in the process say the new law was an important act of self-determination. While its specific purpose is to affirm marriage rights for same-sex couples, supporters say the law also is an effort to assert tribal culture and authority over outside influences by people whose very identities have been under assault for more than two centuries, since non-Indian settlers began arriving in the Pacific Northwest.

“The reason for passing it had nothing to do with ‘What benefits do I get out of it?’ ” said Michelle Hansen, the tribal attorney. “You have this community saying, ‘Where we can avoid discrimination, we’re going to do it.’ ”


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