Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma in joust over same-sex marriage plans

OKLAHOMA CITY – In western Oklahoma, controversy has erupted concerning the upcoming marriage of two men – Darren Blackbear and Jason Pickel – with the approval of the judicial system in the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. 

In mid-October, a marriage license was issued after judicial consideration of the request. The tribe has said one same-sex couple is already married, and that Blackbear-Pickel will be the second. 

While the state of Oklahoma bans same-sex marriage, the state affords some sovereignty to federally-recognized Indian nations, when a legal issue falls within “Indian country.” 

The C&A legal code references the tribal government’s authority to grant marriages (or divorce) for “Indians” – with a requirement that one person in the union is a member of the Cheyenne & Arapaho residing within tribal jurisdiction. Blackbear is a member of the C&A who lives in western Oklahoma. 

Friday morning, about 40 C&A members met at the tribal headquarters complex in Concho. The meeting was called by Ida Hoffman, chief of staff in the executive offices of the C&A. Invited to the session were “all tribal members, news media and those concerned to come and discuss the issue.” 

Plans for a wedding ceremony for Blackbear and Pickel scheduled for next week have sparked national media attention, yet only a handful of journalists were at Friday’s meeting. 

At the Concho session, C&A member Ramona Tall Bear read a statement on behalf of Lt. Gov. Amber Bighorse, a tribal leader supportive of same-sex marriage. As the meeting began, Bighorse provided her statement to CapitolBeatOK.

The Bighorse statement said, “The constitutions of our Tribe and our country guarantee religious freedom. Currently, there are no laws in Cheyenne and Arapaho country that prohibit gay marriage. Notwithstanding our internal political struggles, we have always been a tolerant, accepting, and caring community; we demonstrate these values through the services we continually provide to those in need.”

She continued, “Native peoples should be able to understand the kind of discrimination, bigotry, and hatred that is fueled by the fact that differences exist within and between all human beings — differences in the way we live our lives, the way we view family, our religious and spiritual beliefs.”

Pointing to the experiences of the Two Tribes, Bighorse continued that in the last century, “It was acceptable to divide our people so that, over time, we would no longer be connected as tribes; it was even acceptable to massacre our ancestors; and when genocide failed, to attempt to assimilate Natives so we would no longer be different. This is our history.

“I do not believe in discriminating against others based on our differences as humans, whether those differences are physical, religious, or, with respect to the conversation today, based on sexual orientation. I think that if we, as a community, start contemplating the legitimacy of gay marriages, it would be a step backward.” 

Bighorse’s statement concluded, “I wholeheartedly support marriage equality, and I am so proud to be a Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal member and leader at this moment in our history.” 

Hoffman, chief of staff for government of the tribes, took the opposite stance in her statement, forwarded to CapitolBeatOK. She characterized as inaccurate comments from Blackbear and Pickle, in several news reports, that “no one from the tribe objected” to the planned marriage. 

She said the two men “are receiving their 15 minutes of fame to the detriment of the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes as a sovereign nation.”

Pointing to a range of services the C&A government provides to members, Hoffman said, “The media was not here when we were meeting daily to discuss our financial status when the government funding for our programs was not available during the shutdown. Yet the media are quick to run the story featuring one tribal member, Blackbear, who obtained a marriage license … and decided to seek fame. It is tragic that Blackbear decided his personal sexual preference should be the main focus in the use of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal name.” 

Hoffman believes issuance of a marriage license resulted from an “erroneous conclusion” in court — that a marriage license could be issued to “individuals of the same sex.” Hoffman said that as an elder of the Tribes, “I am over the age of 55. In all my years I have never seen a man taking on the woman role nor have I seen a woman taking on a man role.” 

Saying she intends to ask for the issue to be considered in the Tribal legislature, Hoffman said she does “not believe that same-sex marriage is a Biblical teaching. … I have never heard or witnessed any traditional teachings that endorse the practice of same sex marriage. … I speak as a Tribal member, a mother and a grandmother.” 

Concerning the recording of marriages and divorces, the C&A ordinances (Sections 1001 and 1002) are silent about the sex of those seeking marriage, stating Indians seeking marriage or divorce “shall conform to the custom and common law of the Tribe.”

Nationally, a half-dozen American Indian tribes allow same-sex marriage, while most (including the Cherokee Nation, based in Oklahoma) do not. 

At the state level, Oklahoma voters in November 2004 approved a constitutional referendum, State Question 711, defining marriage as between one man and one woman. That measure gained 75.59 percent of the vote.

In spring 2012, both the House and Senate approved non-binding resolutions affirming the state’s traditional definitions of marriage. 

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