By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
One Feather Staff
The issue of same-sex marriage was discussed during the regular session of Tribal Council on Thursday, July 8, but legislation submitted to make it a reality died on the floor for the second month in a row. An ordinance, re-submitted by Tamara Thompson who submitted it in June, sought to amend Cherokee Code Chapter 50 Article I (Marriage) by recognizing same-sex marriage within the tribal jurisdiction of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), was not deemed read and tabled and died on the floor – same as it did last month.
The vote to determine whether the proposed ordinance would be deemed read and tabled was 56-44 against as follows: (Against – Painttown Rep. Dike Sneed, Wolftown Rep. Bo Crowe, Big Cove Rep. Richard French, Birdtown Rep. Boyd Owle, Cherokee Co./Snowbird Rep. Bucky Brown, Tribal Council Chairman Adam Wachacha, Vice Chairman David Wolfe; For – Painttown Rep. Tommye Saunooke, Wolftown Rep. Chelsea Saunooke, Birdtown Rep. Albert Rose, Yellowhill Rep. Tom Wahnetah, and Big Cove Rep. Perry Shell).
The ordinance sought numerous changes to Sec. 50.1 including striking that the institution of marriage is only “between a man and a woman”. It also would have added, “Marriage shall not be limited by the gender or sexual orientation of the parties being married” and amended the following sentence to read, “The licensing and solemnization of same-sex marriages, that are duly and legally recognized within the United States, are accepted without discrimination within the jurisdiction of the Eastern Band.”
In addressing Council Thursday morning, Thompson, an EBCI tribal member from the Big Cove Community, said she felt they were in violation of Cherokee Code Section 117-38(b) which states, “All ordinances proposed to be considered by the Tribal Council shall be either placed on the agenda by the Clerk or introduced by the Principal Chief as emergency legislation.”
She noted, “All ordinances proposed to the Tribal Council shall, not maybe, not ‘you have a choice’, but shall be placed on the agenda.”
Thompson spoke briefly of the legislation that led to the ban on same-sex marriages within the Tribe, “Six years ago, in the name of Christianity, hurt and harm was being committed to tribal members. I can’t tell you the number of testimonies that I’ve heard about youth who are self-mutilating, self-harming, because they don’t feel accepted. The culture against LGBTQ people is hurtful. It’s physically hurtful.”
Ord. No. 381 (2014) was passed on Dec. 11, 2014 and added the language to the Cherokee Code banning same-sex marriages within the EBCI tribal jurisdiction. The legislation stated in part, “God’s Holy word defines marriage as being between a man and a woman only, according to Genesis 1:27; and, it defines homosexuality, etc. being error according to Romans 1:27…”
Thompson added, “Cherokee people have always been accepting of people based on their humanity. They didn’t base you on the color of your skin, based on whether you were gay or straight, or whether, in the name of Tom Belt, ‘whether you like Coke or Pepsi’…it wasn’t until colonial, Biblical, Christianity was forced upon our people that we learned to hate. It’s sad. It’s sad that people are disenfranchised because of how they love another person.”
Haley Cooper, an EBCI tribal member from the Yellowhill Community and organizer of Nudale Adantedi (‘different heart, different spirited’), told Council, “Council members are public servants that took an oath to uphold the Indian Civil Rights Act. All EBCI tribal member’s civil rights are being violated under the due process clause. Chapter 50 Family Law does not recognize same-sex marriage on the Qualla Boundary. Ord. No. 381, submitted in 2014, uses discriminatory language and has galvanized prejudice into Cherokee Code. It is time that the collective mindset of the Cherokee people diverges from the colonial hatred and homophobia.”
Mary “Missy” Crowe, an EBCI tribal member from the Yellowhill Community, is the mother of a member of the LGBTQ+ community and noted, “They’re our relatives. They’re my nieces and my nephews. They’re my brothers and my sisters. They’re yours too…We have a right, an inherent right, and we are entitled to live safe and secure, free and happy, on the Qualla Boundary with fair and equal rights and protections.”
She added, “When I go to Asheville and see Harrah’s Cherokee Convention Center flying the Pride Flag – that’s our main business isn’t it? Your business is out there showing that Pride Flag.”
Ella Montelongo, Crowe’s daughter, described her thoughts growing up as a member of the LGBTQ+ community in Cherokee. She spoke of the need for inclusion and said many young EBCI tribal members have spoken to her about their struggles.
Montelongo admonished Council, “It’s not for you to understand. It’s for you to respect.”
Wolftown Rep. Chelsea Saunooke, who voted in favor of having the ordinance deemed read and tabled, identified as a member of the LGBTQ+ community and said, “I knew in second grade that I liked men and women.”
Tearfully, she told her story and return to traditional Cherokee practices and noted, “If I lose support just for giving this piece of legislation the right to be deemed read and tabled, then so be it. From here on out, I’m not going to be afraid of votes, or a church, that goes against their own. Because, you know, right now I don’t feel welcome in a church.”
Birdtown Rep. Albert Rose made the motion for the ordinance to be deemed read and tabled. “I want to hear from the people. That’s what I’m here for. I’m not here to deny them. I don’t think I ever have denied anyone. My sister, she’s gay and she’s married. I look at her just like anybody else. That’s her prerogative.”
He went on to say, “This should have been heard today and put on the agenda and at least discussed more.”
Tribal Council Chairman Adam Wachacha said, “Everyone understands that the representation that sits around this horseshoe might not share the same beliefs, but I know from my heart that I respect each and every one of you. Everybody makes their own choices. I’ve got a brother-in-law that’s addicted to drugs, and I don’t agree with those choices but those are the choices that he makes. And, I hope that he straightens up.”
Following Thursday’s session, Cooper told the One Feather, “I feel hopeful knowing we have a clear course of action and that we have continued to garner support and make new connections in western North Carolina. I am deeply grateful to Chelsea Saunooke for having the courage to share her story and speak in favor of Tamara’s ordinance. I am also grateful to Albert Rose for speaking in favor of the ordinance. People in Cherokee want change. We want a welcoming and safe home for our Nudale Adantedi kin. Personally, I want Council to decolonize and unlearn the residual, harmful attitudes that have origins in the boarding schools.”