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Some tribes allow gay couples to marry despite state bans

By Kristi Eaton

Associated Press


OKLAHOMA CITY » Darren Black Bear hasn't thought too much about his upcoming nuptials. Maybe khaki pants, and he doesn't mind if guests show up in Halloween costumes even though the wedding will be a rare sight: He and his partner are getting legally married in Okla­homa even though the state bans same-sex marriage.

How? His bloodline.

Black Bear and his partner of nine years, Jason Pickel, plan to walk each other down the aisle Thursday, surrounded by family and friends, before signing a marriage license granted by the Cheyenne Ara­paho Tribes. Black Bear, 45, is a member of the Okla­homa-based tribe, which is among the few Native American tribes in the U.S. that allow same-sex marriage.

Like all federally recognized tribes, the Cheyenne Ara­paho can approve laws for its land and members. Its code regarding marriage doesn't address gender, referring to the parties simply as "Indians," and requires that one person be a member of the tribe and reside within its jurisdiction.

It was on a whim, sparked in part by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision earlier this year to grant federal benefits to same-sex couples, that Pickel, 36, called the tribe to see whether he and Black Bear could marry under tribal law instead of getting married in Iowa or another state where gay marriage was legal.

"Surprisingly enough, they told him that yes, they had already married one couple, and that it's $20 to get married," Black Bear said.

"I'm just really happy we are able to finally get married," Pickel said. "And one day, when we have true equality in all 50 states, we will hopefully have all the same benefits and rights in every state."

At least six other tribes allow same-sex marriage, including the Coquille Tribe in Oregon and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians in Michigan, states that also ban same-sex marriage, according to national gay marriage advocacy group Freedom to Marry. Other tribes, such as the Cherokee Nation, specifically bar gay marriage.

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs said it doesn't track how many of the nation's hundreds of recognized tribes allow same-sex marriage.

Like gay couples who legally marry in other states, Black Bear and Pickel won't be awarded state benefits given to married couples in Okla­homa. But they will receive federal marriage benefits, and they said a primary reason they decided to marry was to enable Pickel to be added to Black Bear's health insurance.

Still, both men said they wanted to show their commitment to each other, and to encourage other tribes and states to adopt similar laws. The couple decided to become more outspoken after they were refused a room at an extended-stay hotel in another state because of their relationship, which resulted in Pickel — long the more vocal of the pair — convincing a local television station to report on the controversy.

"We just want the same benefits, and we just want to be treated the same," Black Bear said, noting he was grateful for the tribal law.

"I've always been an advocate for equal rights, so I guess it's kind of natural that it (the wedding) would be public," Pickel said.

Black Bear's father has told his son he would be honored to officiate the wedding.

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