Celebrations from this summer’s landmark decision on same-sex marriage haven’t quite reached all corners of the 50 states — specifically American Indian lands.
Federally recognized tribes able to self-govern aren’t subject to decisions like the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote to legalize same-sex marriage — one change they aren’t likely to mirror in their own communities.
Many have passed laws preventing same-sex marriages on tribal lands; other tribes still under federal jurisdiction generally discourage it.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is the only federally recognized tribe in North Carolina. It passed a law outlawing gay marriage just after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals legalized it in North Carolina and several other states in October.
Tribe officials declined to comment about the law, but the ordinance in question calls homosexual relations an “error,” citing a Bible verse as evidence.
East of the Cherokee reservation lies Lumbee territory, home to the largest Native American tribe in North Carolina.
Mary Ann Jacobs, chair of American Indian studies at the historically Native American UNC-Pembroke, said the majority of the Lumbee are Baptist or Methodist.
“For most gay people in this community, it’s pretty much a negative experience,” she said.
Jacobs, who is a member of the Lumbee tribe, said tribes internalized the harsh way Native Americans were assimilated into Christianity when European settlers first arrived. She said they’ve projected some of that oppression over time in their interpretation of the religion.
UNC senior and Lumbee tribe member Harley Locklear, who also belongs to Carolina Indian Circle and Phi Sigma Nu, said the Lumbee practice “old-school” Christianity.
“That’s all due to colonialism,” he said. “It’s pretty much taught from a young age that homosexuality is a sinful thing.”
But Jacobs said that negative perception within tribes hasn’t been a fixture of their history.
She said American Indian literature across the United States points to a sense of acceptance; native communities recognized up to six genders prior to European contact.
“I can’t say for sure that people conceptualized homosexuality the same way we do now,” she said. “We’re talking about different cultures, and sexuality is influenced by culture a lot.”
Much of the historical documentation available today stems from tribes in the Midwest, Jacobs said, as many eastern tribes weren’t documented during early, often violent, encounters with Europeans.
Documents point to the concept of “two-spirited” people, which refers to androgynous or potentially transgender people who were often given special roles in their tribes, she said.
“It doesn’t really speak to sexual orientation, although that’s what we’ve come to know it as now,” she said.
Locklear said tribes from the western United States held on to those ideas longer than others.
“We kind of took a step away from that due to the imposition of Christianity and colonialism,” he said. “It’s sort of making a comeback within the native community.”
Kerry Bird, a 1986 UNC-Chapel Hill graduate who worked with the University, was born to a Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate father and a Lumbee mother. Though registered as a member of his father’s tribe, he grew up in the Lumbee community.
As a gay Native American, Bird, 53, said the two tribes have different relationships with religion and different approaches to homosexuality.
Bird said his father’s South Dakota tribe has explicitly recognized two-spirited people, making acceptance somewhat easier.
“That type of acknowledgement that they have … I would find a lot harder to imagine in the Lumbee community here in North Carolina,” he said.
But Bird said he’s had some recognition from his mother’s tribe; the pastor at her funeral mentioned she was preceded in death by her son-in-law, Bird’s late partner.
Both sides of Bird’s family have been accepting, he said. They treat his current partner like a member of the family.
“My nieces and nephews, they call him Uncle Ken,” Bird said.