Aug 12, 2005
Volume 33
Issue 32

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Lesbian couple tests Cherokee tribal law with mixed results
Lesbian couple tests Cherokee tribal law with mixed results
by Robert Raketty - SGN Staff Writer

After having been barred from entering her partner's hospital room because she was not considered family by hospital staff, Dawn McKinley, 33, decided that she wanted to take her relationship with her partner to the next logical step - marriage. However, their decision to seek a marriage certificate under the authority of the Cherokee Nation would touch off a debate and legal struggle over cultural traditions and sovereignty.

Last year, tribal citizens McKinley and her partner, Kathy Reynolds, 28, received a marriage application from the tribe without incident. They held a marriage ceremony at a Tulsa, Okla., park on Cherokee land, which was conducted by a Cherokee Nation certified minister. When the couple went to file their application, however, they discovered that a tribal judge had issued an injunction forbidding the Cherokee Nation from recognizing the marriage.

A lawyer for the Cherokee Tribal Council, Todd Hembree, later asked the tribal court to nullify the marriage because tribal laws governing marriage use terms such as "husband" and "wife." However, Cherokees often use words "cooker" for wife and "companion" for husband in the marriage ceremony, the couple claimed.

"We were very naïve," McKinley told the Washington Post. "We thought we'd get married under Cherokee law and that would be the end of it. We never thought it would turn into this."

A Cherokee Nation court ruled on Wednesday, August 3, that Hembree's lawsuit was without merit because he had failed to show that he suffered any harm if the Lesbian couple's marriage were to be recognized. However, the decision may be a moot point.

The Cherokee Tribal Council has already amended Cherokee law to change ambiguous language to "a union as between one man and one woman." The Tribunal court has again been asked to present additional arguments in a second case filed against the couple. The latest case was brought by eight of the 15 tribal councilors who are seeking a temporary injunction that would prevent McKinley and Reynolds from registering their marriage certificate with the Cherokee Nation District Court Clerk.

The San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights is representing the couple. Should the Cherokee Nation recognize the couple's marriage, tribal sovereignty laws mandate that states would be required to recognize it. Oklahoma banned recognition of marriages by same-sex couples last year, setting the stage for a possible legal battle.

The couple say they aren't seeking controversy, only the right to raise their daughter and live out their lives in peace. "I mean, really, who are we hurting here?" said McKinley. "We don't bother anyone, we mind our own business&stick to ourselves. How could our marriage would hurt anyone?"


Lena Ayoub, attorney at the National Center of Lesbian Rights, with Kathy Reynolds and Dawn McKinley (left to right) of the Cherokee Nation.

Photo courtesy of National Center for Lesbian Rights
copyright Seattle Gay News - DigitalTeamWorks 2005