Ahead of a historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, a parallel debate is raging inside another sovereign nation within U.S. borders: the Navajo nation.
But unlike those in the 50 states, Native Americans who support gay marriage—a coalition of LGBT Navajo, their allies, and even the leading candidate running for the Navajo presidency—have history on their side.
The Navajos have a rich, documented history of accepting and even honoring people that identified with different genders and sexual preferences.
In fact, as recently as 10 years ago, same-sex unions were recognized by the Navajos.
“We were recognizing same-sex unions between a man and a man and a woman and a woman long before white people came on to this land,” Alray Nelson, lead organizer at the Coalition for Navajo Equality, a local community group working to end the ban on gay marriage, told Fusion.
That changed in 2005, when, following the footsteps of the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act, the Navajo Nation introduced its own version, called the Diné Marriage Act.
The Navajo nation recognizes what are known as “tribal common-law marriages.” If a couple is cohabitating and “holding out to the public as being married” then the tribal government recognizes that couple as a married unit.
“Before the 2005 Diné Marriage Act, that was a law for everyone,” Nelson said.
Going back further, there are drawings, photographs, oral histories, and even language that advocates say is evidence LGBT Navajo tribe members were once accepted.
The Navajo language has at least one term for tribe members that don’t fit traditional heterosexual roles: nádleehí.
“Historically our society was more accepting of a person who was nádleehí,” said Dr. Jennifer Denetdale, a University of New Mexico associate professor and a member of the Navajo Humans Rights Commission.
Anthropologist W. W. Hill noted Navajo nádleehí indivudals were associated with wealth and that the families they were born in to were considered fortunate. But that began to change. In her research, Denetdale has traced Hill writing about seeing a change in 1930 when he saw Navajo schoolboys “scoffing” at a nádleehí individual. After the nádleehí tribe member heard the ridiculing, Hill noted, he changed from women’s clothing in to male clothing.
Scholars say the introduction of more conservative views came after European churches came in and offered a different set of beliefs and the U.S. forced Native Americans to relocate and attend U.S. schools.
Now, Nelson and Dr. Denetdale both note, young LGBT Navajos can face bullies and teasing on their own reservation. But they say the discussion about lifting the ban on same-sex marriage is creating a dialogue and awareness of the issues LGBT people face on the reservation.
Outside of the reservation, there’s a growing number of “two-spirit” groups starting similar conversations. Two-spirit individuals who identify with male and female spirits make some of the same points Nelson makes: before colonization Native Americans honored those that didn’t fit in to the traditional gender roles.
If the activists are successful and push the Navajo Nation to lift the ban on gay marriage, could have a sweeping effect. The Navajo nation is the largest of the 566 federally recognized tribes and smaller tribes look to see how they handle their policies.
A note about the images used: The image of the two men sitting down holding hands at the top of the page was taken in Fort Sumner, New Mexico in 1866 by an unknown photographer. The two men have been presented as partners in a number of publications including a 2009 PBS documentary titled “Two-Spirits.” The New Mexico Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, where the original mage is housed, could not confirm these two individuals were a couple. Photo courtesy of Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, New Mexico History Museum.