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Native American Tribes Are Wrestling With Decision To Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

While across the U.S. same-sex marriage has been legal for four years, some Native American tribes still fail to recognize it. Tribes are empowered to make their own laws, and some are just now wrestling with new rights. Chynna Lockett of South Dakota Public Broadcasting says the Oglala Lakota tribe is the latest to legalize same-sex marriage.

CHYNNA LOCKETT, BYLINE: There are more than 550 tribes in the U.S. And while hard data is difficult to find, only a handful have legalized same-sex marriage. That's, in part, because of religious beliefs held by some Native people that contradict same-sex marriage.

(CROSSTALK)

LOCKETT: In Rapid City, Monique, or Muffie Mousseau and her wife, Felipa Deleon, are cutting out LGBT pride stickers in their living room. Mousseau points out a red flag with white triangles that form a circle. It's the Oglala Lakota tribe's flag. They're both enrolled members of the tribe. Mousseau and Deleon have been together for more than a decade now. They grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, but moved away in 2009 because they feared increased harassment over their sexual orientation. When same-sex marriage was legalized nationally, the couple wanted to get married on the reservation. But the tribe wouldn't allow that, so they went through the state of South Dakota instead. The ceremony was held in 2015 at Mount Rushmore with six other couples.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It is with great joy and humbled admiration that I now pronounce you united, legally married and spouses for life. Would you please kiss your spouse?

MUFFIE MOUSSEAU: So that's how the fairy tale began.

LOCKETT: After the ceremony, they began taking steps to change the law in the tribe. Now, four years later, they've done just that.

MOUSSEAU: There should be not any embarrassment of who you are as a person and who you want to be with and who you're attracted to or who you would like to kiss and who you fall in love with.

LOCKETT: Mousseau says LGBT people aren't a new concept for tribes. In Lakota and other native cultures, they're traditionally referred to as two-spirited people. Some reservations, including Pine Ridge, still have a large church presence, and that influences local policies. Bishop James Wall works on cultural diversity with the U.S. Conference of Bishops.

JAMES WALL: Marriage is something - from the very beginning, it was one man, one woman - come together to be open to the gift of human life. So we talk about being procreative and for the betterment of the raising up of children.

LOCKETT: Wall says while the Catholic Church doesn't support same-sex marriage, whether tribal or not, it also doesn't support discriminating against LGBT people. In Washington state, the Suquamish tribe legalized same-sex marriage before the state did. Heather Purser is an enrolled member and LGBT advocate who helped change the law there in 2011. Purser says while not everyone supports same-sex marriage, they voted unanimously to legalize it because they didn't want people to feel like outcasts.

HEATHER PURSER: Even though a lot of them may not have agreed, they were able to respond to that and not want that for another tribal member because a lot of us are family. And all of us - we love each other.

LOCKETT: Purser says that decision shows acceptance and love just like the original cultural teachings in the Suquamish tribe. The Oglala Lakota are now pursuing anti-hate crime laws in another effort to protect the rights of LGBT people.

For NPR News, I'm Chynna Lockett in Rapid City, S.D.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY'S "YOUR HAND IN MINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.