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MELISSA BLOCK, host: Same-sex marriage is now legal for a tiny sliver of Washington state. The Suquamish Indian Tribe announced this month that it will allow gay couples to marry on its reservation.
From member station KUOW in Seattle, Liz Jones reports that the change is largely due to the persistence of one of the tribe's own members.
LIZ JONES: Four years ago, Heather Purser quietly began talking to people in her tribe about her hope to some day get married.
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JONES: She shows me around the Suquamish reservation on Washington's Kitsap Peninsula in Peugeot Sound. The waterfront lodge is where she pictures her future wedding.
HEATHER PURSER: And then you can walk out along the dock and you can - I would have, like, a nice yacht at the dock and get away for the honeymoon.
JONES: Purser's 28 and in a committed relationship, but she's in no rush to tie the knot. From the dock, we cross the emerald lawn toward the lodge. She explains why she wants to get married in this rustic place through the tribe.
PURSER: I grew up here. I didn't always live on the reservation growing up but this is where I'm from and I would like to feel like I truly belong in every aspect.
JONES: This lodge is also special to her for another big reason.
PURSER: This is where I asked the tribe to vote on same-sex marriage.
JONES: And with that, Purser's quiet appeal for gay marriage turned to full volume. At the tribe's annual meeting in March, she stood up and, as she puts it, asked the tribe for her rights.
The tribe has about 1,000 members and these meetings are one of their biggest gatherings.
PURSER: And then everyone voted and everyone said, aye. And I just...
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PURSER: I could have fallen down, I was so shocked. It was one of the best moments of my entire life.
LEONARD FORSMAN: It really was no huge obstacle for the tribe in a political or cultural sense.
JONES: Leonard Forsman is the chairman of the tribe's governing council. The tribe's attorney revised its marriage ordinance to include same-sex marriage. And this month, the seven-member council unanimously approved it.
Forsman sconcedes some tribal members may disagree with gay marriage, but he says they disagree more with discrimination.
FORSMAN: We don't go out and try to brand people if we can help it, because we were branded as being lazy or being uneducated. We don't want to have those same things applied by our tribal government onto others.
JONES: And here's where this change in the Suquamish law could get tricky. It allows couples to marry as long as one of them is a tribal member. That grants the couple some tribal benefits, like fishing rights, but they're still barred from federal benefits that come with marriage, like Social Security. That's because the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, explicitly extends to tribes.
Professor Ron Whitener heads the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington. He says the tribe's law could also run into conflicts with state courts.
RON WHITENER: Once those people that are getting married start getting divorces, I think we're going to see a lot of case law being developed.
JONES: Whitener thinks it'll get especially complicated with couples where only one spouse is Native American. He says some states, including Washington, like to handle a lot of family law issues within tribes, things like divorces and child custody plans.
But if the state does not recognize gay marriages...
WHITENER: Then the non-Indian spouse in those relationships is going to have to go to tribal court if they want to dissolve their marriage and that's an unusual situation. Often, there's an avenue for the non-Indian to go to state court.
JONES: Only one other tribe within the U.S. has legalized same-sex marriage, the Coquille tribe in Oregon. Meanwhile, two of the largest tribes, the Cherokee and Navaho, have passed laws against it.
For her part, Heather Purser says her success with the Suquamish tribe is really the tribe's success.
PURSER: The people here were able to put their own views aside and their own fears and prejudices about gay people because I know that it does exist, but they put all that aside because they saw that one person wanted to feel accepted.
JONES: Suquamish leaders say, in such a small tribe, no member is ever faceless. So Purser's cause became the tribe's cause.
For NPR News, I'm Liz Jones in Seattle.
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BLOCK: We'll have more ALL THINGS CONSIDERED right after this.
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