WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. – The New Mexico Supreme Court ruling last month to recognize same-sex marriage as a constitutional right isn’t stretching to every corner of the state.
On the Navajo Nation, a portion of which overlaps with northwestern New Mexico, same-sex marriages remain “void and prohibited” under a law overwhelmingly passed by the Navajo Nation Tribal Council in 2005.
The ban, according to Navajo Council Speaker Johnny Naize, is rooted in traditional Navajo values, which for some Navajo families still mean that arranged marriages and scripted interactions between families before a marriage is recognized.
“The tradition with that says that the marriage has to be between a man and woman. That’s how we respect our tradition,” said Naize, who voted in favor of the same-sex marriage ban in 2005.
The Diné Marriage Act allows the tribe to recognize opposite-sex marriages licensed off-reservation but specifically bans Navajo recognition of gay or lesbian unions. Then-Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley vetoed the law, but the veto was overturned by a supermajority of the Tribal Council.
Despite the finding that same-sex marriages are legal in New Mexico, tribal sovereignty allows the Navajo Nation to continue enforcement of its own 2005 gay marriage ban.
Navajo sovereignty also means that a recent U.S. District Court ruling striking down a similar across-the-board ban of same-sex marriage in Utah does not apply to the portion of the Navajo Nation stretching into that state.
But recent changes allowing same-sex marriages to go forward in neighboring states have energized an effort on the reservation to repeal the tribe’s same-sex marriage ban, despite strong opposition among members of the tribe’s 24-member council.
“When (a) Navajo sees this (New Mexico ruling), they have to look back at our law and say, ‘You know what? We’re wrong,’ ” said Alray Nelson, organizer of the Coalition for Navajo Equality, a gay and lesbian rights group advocating repeal of the tribe’s same-sex marriage ban.
“Our job is to let (Navajo Nation) President (Ben) Shelly know that we don’t want the nation to be on the wrong side of history because the momentum is moving toward this call for an end of discrimination.”
But the road toward repealing the tribe’s marriage law will be long, Naize said.
Just one of the current council’s 24 members voted against the marriage law in 2005, when the council comprised 88 delegates.
Meanwhile, 10 current council members voted in favor of the law; four were absent for the veto override vote. Nine delegates to the council have been newly elected since the 2005 vote.
The Navajo language doesn’t even have a word for same-sex marriage, supporters of the marriage ban say.
“The mainstream people, the Westernized people, they have their own rules and laws. We have our traditions about what marriage is all about,” Naize said. “Anyone who wishes to marry … same-sex, they have that opportunity. They have every right to be recognized using outside rules, outside laws, but we still have a lot of people that believe in tradition.”
That marriage tradition, he said, has nothing to do with discrimination. Unlike Western culture, in which church and state are clearly separated – allowing churches to deny same-sex marriage while requiring the New Mexico state government to honor the unions – Navajo culture intertwines government with cultural heritage.
Naize said he does not expect the ruling of the New Mexico Supreme Court will create any pressure for the tribe to reconsider its own marriage laws. Rather, the issue might be reconsidered when Navajo traditional values “subside,” he said.
“Ten years, 15 years, I think,” Naize said.
No push for repeal
No one on the council is pushing for a repeal and constituents aren’t raising the issue, said Councilman Lorenzo Bates, a northwestern New Mexico delegate of the Navajo Nation representing chapters including Nenahnezad and Upper Fruitland. Bates was absent for the 2005 vote.
“There’s no discussion that I’m aware of from any of my chapters or from the Navajo Nation as a whole,” Bates said.
Nelson said his Coalition for Navajo Equality is looking to new members of the council to introduce a repeal proposal.
But one of those members declined to discuss the issue on the record, saying he had no intention of carrying repeal legislation at this time. Others did not return requests for comment.
Among those voting against the 2005 marriage law were now-President Shelly and Vice President Rex Lee Jim, who served as council delegates at the time.
Shelly adviser Deswood Tome said that the president respects the choice of gay or lesbian Navajos to get married elsewhere, but that the president is not making a repeal of the tribe’s 2005 law a priority.
“If the Navajo Nation Council votes on it and they pass it, saying, ‘OK, marriage is open for everybody,’ and they get a good vote over there, it doesn’t make any sense for him to veto it,” Tome said.
But, Tome said, “I don’t believe he’s going to advocate for it, because the president has priorities in areas of job creation, business development, infrastructure, housing, education, health and those right now are where the president’s focus is. I imagine the same with the Navajo Nation council.”
Shelly was not available for an interview.
Nelson, who previously worked as a personal aide to the tribal president, said support for same-sex marriage on the Navajo Nation is broader than many members of the council and president’s office think, but said that support isn’t recognized because it’s a private issue for Navajo families.
“You won’t have a Navajo couple standing in front of the president’s office with a rainbow flag. It’s very private. We’re not like that. It’s very different from what you saw in New Mexico, where you had couples that were OK with coming out and being public about it,” Nelson said.
To move the needle, Nelson said, his coalition is traveling across the Navajo Nation to discuss the issue with families, particularly families with gay or lesbian members, hoping those families will help their council delegates recognize same-sex marriage as a priority.
“We don’t have the ability to call up people and do polling. You’re going to have to sit at the local Wal-Mart down here to do polling,” Nelson said. “These leaders are just listening for what’s happening at home. …We’re using the people to speak for themselves to our lawmakers.”
So far, that effort to bring attention to the issue hasn’t registered, tribal leaders said.
“The Navajo public has to make this a priority,” said Tome, the president’s adviser. “And I believe we have other priorities that are far more important.”