BELCOURT, N.D. — The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa on Thursday, Aug. 6, became the first tribal nation within North Dakota's borders to recognize same-sex marriage.

The Tribal Council voted 6-2 to amend the nation's domestic relations policy to include civil unions in its definition of marriage. Deliberation about the decision took almost two hours, as multiple people emotionally voiced their opinions for and against the amendment.

Prior to the vote, almost 200 Turtle Mountain members and LGBTQ allies marched on the reservation in favor of legalizing marriage for the nation's two-spirited members. "Two-spirit” is an umbrella term used in some Indigenous communities for gender queer, gender fluid and gender nonconforming tribal members.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled more than five years ago that same-sex marriage was a guaranteed right within all 50 U.S. states. Because tribal nations are sovereign, however, the court ruling did not apply to the 574 federally recognized tribes within U.S. borders.

Thursday's march began with a procession of vehicles decorated with rainbows, and all march attendees were given "Indigenous Equality" T-shirts and masks.

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At the Tribal Council meeting, more than six Turtle Mountain members shared their stories about growing up on the reservation and facing discrimination.

Vincent Grant, a Turtle Mountain member who helped organize Thursday's march, spoke of his experiences growing up on the reservation knowing he was two-spirited. He said other kids called him derogatory names, and he pleaded with the Tribal Council to pass the amendment to make sure no children growing up on the reservation have similar experiences to himself.

"If you were to vote yes today, you would be sending a message to 7-year-old me that was crying when I go home every day after school and telling that child that your nation loves you," Grant said. "... This is the perfect opportunity to embrace our traditional values and get back to our roots."

More than 150 people marched in Belcourt, N.D., on Thursday, Aug. 6. to show support for legalizing same-sex marriage on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. Michelle Griffith/The Forum.
More than 150 people marched in Belcourt, N.D., on Thursday, Aug. 6. to show support for legalizing same-sex marriage on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. Michelle Griffith/The Forum.

Those who opposed the amendment to recognize same-sex marriages primarily did so on religious grounds.

Christianity is weaved in the tribal nation's history, as Catholic missionaries came to the nation's lands to establish churches decades ago. Belcourt, Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation's flagship city, is even named after the French Catholic priest Father George Belcourt, according to the informational pamphlet "Who I Am" created by the Turtle Mountain Community College.

Many Turtle Mountain members are Catholic, and marriage is between one man and one woman, said Turtle Mountain member Denise Marcellias, who said at the Thursday meeting she was a member of the Catholic Church.

"This is not an equality issue. As far as I have known, no one in this community has ever challenged any LGBTQ person ever, myself included," Marcellias said Thursday. "Members of the Catholic Church are also members of this community, and because we have a conscience — and I'm sure everyone here does — we would like to request that you as a governing body give us back our right, too."

The amendment's passing brought cheers, hugging and applause to many who attended the meeting.

Before the vote, all tribal members made comments encouraging the tribal nation to be kind to one another, no matter how a person identifies.

"We're hoping that people can just be who they are," said Turtle Mountain Chairman Jamie Azure in an interview with The Forum. "You are the way you were born (and) you were created in the image of that higher power."

More than 150 people marched in Belcourt, N.D., on Thursday, Aug. 6. to show support for legalizing same-sex marriage on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. Michelle Griffith/The Forum.
More than 150 people marched in Belcourt, N.D., on Thursday, Aug. 6. to show support for legalizing same-sex marriage on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. Michelle Griffith/The Forum.

More than 150 people marched in Belcourt, N.D., on Thursday, Aug. 6. to show support for legalizing same-sex marriage on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. Michelle Griffith/The Forum.
More than 150 people marched in Belcourt, N.D., on Thursday, Aug. 6. to show support for legalizing same-sex marriage on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. Michelle Griffith/The Forum.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com