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Eastern Band Cherokee Marriage Equality Resolution Struck Down During Pride Month

Bear sculptures dot downtown Cherokee on the Qualla Boundary near the Tribal Council House.
Lilly Knoepp
BPR News
Bear sculptures dot downtown Cherokee on the Qualla Boundary near the Tribal Council House.

It’s been six years since the U.S. Supreme Court made its landmark ruling making same-sex marriage legal. But that ruling doesn’t apply to sovereign nations in the U.S., including the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on the Qualla Boundary in western North Carolina.

A year before the Obergefell decision, the Eastern Band Tribal Council passed a resolution codifying the tribe would only recognize marriage between a man and woman.

Tamara Thompson wants that to change.

“I've never liked labels. I'm just me. I just love Jillian,” said Thompson.

Thompson is a member of the Eastern Band and a member of the LGBTQ community. She met her partner, Jillian Goldstein, while working at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

“As a non-enrolled member, I am definitely taking a step back a bit but I do support my partner 100% and I want to be there for her and I want to see this go through,” said Goldstein.

Tamara Thompson, left, and her partner, Jillian Goldstein, hope that same-sex marriages will soon be recognized by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Tamara Thompson
Tamara Thompson, left, and her partner, Jillian Goldstein, hope that same-sex marriages will soon be recognized by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

The pair could legally be married as citizens of North Carolina and the United States. But their marriage wouldn’t be recognized by the Eastern Band.

“The Cherokees have always historically valued humanity and being human and how you treat each other,” said Thompson. “It’s important to me to that it's accepted – that I can be accepted. I want to make sure this gets done first. I’m not going to do this until everyone can do it.”

During her time at home during the pandemic, Thompson crafted a resolution for the Tribal Council that would recognize same-sex marriage by the Eastern Band.

“We finally just were like, 'Hey, I got the time to do this. Let's do this,'" Thompson said. "Like, I didn't put any forethought into, 'Oh, this is an election year.' We need to get this done now. I just wanted it done. And I wanted it done in a way that the community can celebrate around at Pride.”

June is Pride month. The Tribal Council is currently in election season. The primary election was on June 3. The general election will be on Sept 2.

Thompson brought that resolution toTribalCouncil this month, but it was immediately declared "dead on the floor" by Tribal Council Chair Adam Wachacha.

During this year, Thompson learned a lot about the tribal code. She said that TribalCouncil should not have been able to let her bill die.

“About two weeks before the session I was called and they said, 'This is the first session. It’s just a reading, where it's given a number. It's a formality and no action can be taken, so you don't even need to be there,'” said Thompson, who did not attend the council meeting.

According to the code, under Sec. 117-38(b), when a resolution is first presented at council, it is numbered and then no action can be taken for 25 days. The code reads: “No member may propose any motion or amendment to the ordinance at the first reading.”

Thompson said the Tribal Council’s action hurt.

“It was hard to take, I felt a little emotional about it because it felt like a personal attack. It felt like they weren't just dismissing, you know, legislation, but they were dismissing an identity that I have for myself,” said Thompson.

But after that decision, Thompson found more allies.

“I had no idea until I saw the One Feather article that was let out last week,” said Atsei Cooper, who was raised by two moms on the Qualla Boundary.

Cooper, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band, reached out to Thompson on Facebook and said this:

“I said I would love to work with you and I would love to form some sort of LGBTQ organization and change the culture around here on the rez.”

So Cooper started a Facebook group, which has already grown to almost 400 members in less than two weeks.

“I’m the organizer of Nudale Adantedi, which means ‘different hearted different spirited,’” said Cooper, translating the Cherokee phrase. Cooper identifies as bisexual and started the group with a friend.

She explains the goal of the group this way:

“Our goal is to bring same-sex marriage to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and on top of that, we want decolonial education and changing the homophobic and transphobic culture that we have adopted here,” said Cooper.

Cooper said it’s time for all of western North Carolina — Eastern Band included — to be more accepting of the LGBTQ community.

“There are a lot of things that need to change around here. And people my age, we want a different and better Cherokee. We do. One that returns to our traditional values,” said Cooper, who is 22.

Thompson has resubmitted the ordinance for the next Tribal Council meeting on July 1. Supporters plan to attend the meeting and are planning a demonstration before it.

Copyright 2021 Blue Ridge Public Radio. To learn more, visit Blue Ridge Public Radio.

Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.