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Gay marriage, now legal in Arizona, not recognized by Navajo Nation

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Nathaniel George said that he knew he was going to marry his husband the first time he laid eyes on him more than eight years ago. Being Navajo and a Flagstaff resident, the chance of them getting legally married in Arizona or on the reservation wasn’t likely.

But George and his partner, George Almaraz, were among the first same-sex couples wed in Coconino County on Oct. 17, the day a federal judge overturned Arizona’s ban.

Though the fight for marriage equality has ended in Arizona, it continues for same-sex couples living in the Navajo Nation, which makes up more than 20 percent of the state but isn’t subject to its laws.

The Diné Marriage Act, passed in 2005 by the Navajo Nation Council, defines marriage as between a man and a woman. And current Navajo President Ben Shelly has said he’s against changing it.

But George said he believes this will change soon with same-sex marriage now legal in Arizona as well as New Mexico, which also has part of the reservation.

“All we can do is keep pushing forward and bringing it up with each president,” George said. “I feel it’s going to happen one day, and hopefully sooner than later. It would be nice to be married in the settings of where we live.”

Navajos who wished to get married to their same-sex partners before Oct. 17 had to go to other states like California. That’s what Jack Jackson Jr., a Navajo and former Arizona state senator, did when he and his husband got married six years ago.

With same-sex marriage now legal in Arizona, Jackson said he believes the issue of marriage equality has gained momentum in the Navajo Nation, which is electing a new president.

“There has been talk of people trying to make it an issue,” Jackson said. “What happened in Arizona – I think you’ll see that effort gain more traction. We’ll see what transpires in the months to come. I do think we’ll see something.”

Deswood Tome, an aide to Shelly, said there’s no term in Navajo for a gay union and that it’s not a big enough issue for the president to consider right now.

“It’s sacrilege to talk like that,” Tome said. “There’s not enough volition by those who are supporting same-sex marriage to take it to the chapter houses or Navajo Nation Council. I don’t think that is a priority of the leader of Navajo Nation. Economic prosperity, health, natural resources … these are priorities.”

Though Shelly doesn’t support gay marriage in the Navajo Nation, Tome said, he does support any Navajo’s choice to go elsewhere to get married.

“The president has said before that if individual Navajo people want to go into another state and get married, he will support individual choice,” Tome said. “But the law is the law today, and the president will uphold the law.”

Jackson said electing a new tribal president is one reason for his optimism. Shelly was ousted in the primary election, and one of the remaining candidates is former president Joe Shirley Jr., who vetoed the gay marriage ban in 2005 but was overridden by the Navajo Nation Council.

With Shirley running for president again and the opinions of same-sex marriage changing, Jackson said he doesn’t think the idea of marriage equality is too far-fetched for the Navajo Nation.

“People’s attitudes are changing,” he said. “Nobody thought we would be seeing it in Arizona and here we are.”

The Coalition for Navajo Equality in New Mexico has been rallying for a change since that state lifted its ban on same-sex marriage last December. The group’s founder, Alray Nelson, said that while the issue hasn’t been at the forefront even with same-sex marriage becoming legal in Arizona he expects it will be eventually will be as new tribal council members and a new president take office.

“Overall, our people are very compassionate and when – I say when – we do repeal the Diné Marriage Act, it will be very positive on Navajo families,” he said.