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Married Cherokee
lesbian couple battle for recognition

Married Cherokee
lesbian couple battle for recognition

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Dawn McKinley and Kathy Reynolds celebrated their wedding anniversary Wednesday with their Cherokee Nation marriage certificate in hand, even though they are still battling for tribal recognition of their union. The lesbian couple received the certificate and exchanged vows in Cherokee a year ago. But a tribal judge issued an injunction against them after reviewing a complaint that alleges same-sex marriages are invalid under Cherokee law. The couple will go before the tribe's highest court in Tahlequah, Okla., on June 3 on their appeal to have the complaint thrown out. McKinley said they wanted to get married for personal reasons and didn't have a larger agenda. "A lot of people misunderstood this and thought it was an activist movement," said McKinley, 33, of Owasso. "It wasn't." In an era when Massachusetts has become the first U.S. state to allow same-sex marriages and other states, including Oklahoma, have taken steps to prevent such unions, the Cherokee Nation is not the only Indian tribe to take up the issue. Earlier this month Navajo Nation president Joe Shirley Jr. vetoed legislation that would have banned same-sex marriages on the tribe's reservation. Shirley called it a nonissue but said if tribal members want to pursue it, they could do so in a public vote. McKinley and Reynolds, 28, both members of the Cherokee Nation, said they decided to pursue a marriage license through the tribe after McKinley was initially denied access to Reynolds's hospital room during a 2003 emergency. Reynolds's family members were being asked to sign paperwork on her behalf, but Reynolds said, "It didn't seem right that the person closest to me should be left out." Once granted access, McKinley said she was so afraid of being kicked out again that she didn't leave Reynolds's hospital bedside for seven days. During that time, her brother died in a motorcycle accident. Because of tribal sovereignty, Cherokee marriage certificates are recognized just like state-issued marriage licenses. The couple, who also raise McKinley's 12-year-old daughter together, decided "the tribal route was the only way we walk into a courthouse anywhere in Oklahoma and they're not just going to laugh at us," McKinley said. They received the marriage certificate without protest, but a tribal judge issued a moratorium that prevented it from being filed. Then, Todd Hembree, the Tribal Council's lawyer, filed his complaint, and the injunction froze action in the case. "I have no personal animosity to the McKinleys," said Hembree, who filed the case as a tribal citizen. "I just don't want the validity of Cherokee law to be in question or made a mockery of." Hembree argues that tribal statutes used gender-specific terms such as "husband" and "wife" to define marriage. McKinley and Reynolds contend those terms are not gender-specific and that in Cherokee, the terms used in a marriage ceremony are "cooker" for wife and "companion" for husband. Hembree said he has received phone calls from other tribes facing the same issue, including the Navajo. "Indian tribes and reservations don't live in a vacuum," he said. "The same social mores that affect the dominant society are present in Cherokee society." Last year the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council unanimously approved language that defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The tribe issues one or two marriage certificates a month, said spokesman Mike Miller. Reynolds and McKinley said they live as "any married heterosexual couple" and have grown in their relationship since exchanging vows. After a year "I feel wonderful," McKinley said, taking Reynolds's hand in the Tulsa park where a minister united them. "I'm standing by the woman I love." (AP)

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