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Tribal Council again refuses to consider same-sex marriage ordinance

Yellowhill community member Mary Crowe speaks with LGBTQ advocates outside the Cherokee Council House July 8, following Tribal Council’s second refusal to consider an ordinance legalizing same-sex marriage. Holly Kays photo Yellowhill community member Mary Crowe speaks with LGBTQ advocates outside the Cherokee Council House July 8, following Tribal Council’s second refusal to consider an ordinance legalizing same-sex marriage. Holly Kays photo

For the second month in a row , the first item on Tribal Council’s agenda  was an ordinance to legalize same-sex marriage on the Qualla Boundary, and for the second month in a row, members voted July 8 to deny the legislation even the perfunctory first reading necessary to place it on a future agenda for debate and a vote. 

“When the tribal government decides and chooses when they obey their own laws and when they disregard their own laws, you should seriously step back and take a look at what you’re doing,” said Mary Thompson, a former Big Cove representative on Tribal Council and mother of Tamara Thompson, who submitted the resolution under discussion. 

Tribal law  states that all proposed ordinances placed on the agenda “shall” be assigned an ordinance number and be read into the record by the clerk. Tribal Council can vote to waive the reading requirement, but it may not make any motions or add amendments to the ordinances themselves at the time of that first reading — legislation must sit for at least 25 calendar days before Council takes action. Every month, at the beginning of the Tribal Council agenda, members vote unanimously to deem all new ordinances listed on the agenda read and tabled. The vote reflects Council’s desire to save the significant amount of time it would require for each ordinance to be read in full, not its opinion on the content of any of piece of legislation. 

However, when the marriage ordinance first appeared on the agenda in June, the unanimous vote to deem new ordinances read and tabled excluded that agenda item. Thompson resubmitted it for the July agenda, and once again, council members voted  on a motion that excluded the marriage ordinance. 

That vote was again unanimous, but this time Birdtown Representative Albert Rose followed it with a motion to include the marriage ordinance in the list of read and tabled new ordinances. Wolfetown Representative Chelsea Saunooke seconded the motion, eliciting applause from tribal members in attendance who had come to support the legislation. 

However, their jubilation was short-lived, as the motion failed with seven members against it and five in favor. Painttown Representative Tommye Saunooke, Big Cove Representative Perry Shell and Yellowhill Representative Tom Wahnetah joined Chelsea Saunooke and Rose in voting to deem the ordinance read and tabled. Meanwhile, Painttown Representative Dike Sneed, Wolfetown Representative Bo Crowe, Chairman Adam Wachacha, Vice Chairman David Wolfe, Snowbird/Cherokee County Representative Bucky Brown, Birdtown Representative Boyd Owle and Big Cove Representative Richard French opposed the move. 

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After the vote, eight tribal members addressed Council, expressing hurt and anger at council’s refusal to consider the ordinance and at the ongoing ban on same-sex marriage on the Qualla Boundary. 

“You’re allowing a law to sit out there that hurts people, literally, has made people feel unwanted, unwelcomed,” said Tamara Thompson as she battled tears. “I am begging with you guys to change this. You have the right to act on this now. I just don’t understand, why the hate. I know you guys have election  campaign ambitions, but if you’re not working for the people now to protect the people that are here, then it’s not worth re-electing anybody.”

In 2000, tribal law was amended to define marriage specifically as an institution between a man and a woman, and in 2014 Tribal Council passed an ordinance  specifying that “the licensing and solemnization” of same-sex marriage is not allowed in the tribe’s jurisdiction. The 2014 ordinance passed by a 7-1 vote, with one abstention and two absences. Shell, Tommye Saunooke, Rose, Crowe, Wolfe and Wachacha — the only current members who were on Council at that time — voted in favor. Though same-sex marriages are not recognized in Cherokee Court, residents of tribal lands are also residents of a North Carolina county, and all counties in the state have issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples since 2014. 

“My daughter came out to me when she was 14, and I had to tell her that I knew, that she had nothing to be ashamed of,” said Edwin Taylor, who serves as the tribe’s secretary of housing. “It’s hurtful that she’s treated differently by her tribe than she is when she’s off the reservation, and equal protection should apply to everybody, especially to all of our tribal members whether they’re on-boundary or off-boundary. I would like to see this law addressed.”

Ella Montelongo, 19, told Tribal Council that while growing up as an LGBTQ youth on the Qualla Boundary, she never felt able to be fully herself, and that spurred her decision to pack up her things and head to New York City for college. 

“Nobody should feel like they have to leave to be able to be who they are,” she said. 

Chelsea Saunooke and Rose both apologized for not speaking up in favor of the ordinance last month. 

“If I lose support just because I want to give this piece of legislation the right to be deemed read and tabled, then so be it,” Chelsea Saunooke said. 

She told the audience that she’s known since second grade that she liked men and women, and that after leaving her children’s father she found “my person in my life, who I’ve never felt as loved and respected.” A few weeks ago, she added, one of her children “felt the courage to come out to his momma.”

“I put myself out there, which I don’t normally do. Blast me if you want,” she said. “But I do love God, and I will give my own account to God.”

“My sister, she’s gay and she’s married, and I look at her just like anybody else,” added Rose. “That’s her prerogative. If that’s what they want to do, that’s fine with me. I guess what I’m trying to say is how do you go and look at people that you’re friends with now? How do y’uns look at each other now? It should have been heard today I think and put on the agenda and at least discussed more.”

All this discussion took place after Rose’s motion had already been voted down, Wachacha reminded those in attendance as the conversation concluded. 

“The representation that sits around this horseshoe may not share the same beliefs, but I know from my heart, I respect each and every one of you,” he said. “Everybody makes their own choices. I got a brother-in-law who’s addicted to drugs, and I don’t agree with those choices but that’s the choices that he makes, and I hope that he straightens up. All I can do is pray for him.”

The implicit comparison of drug addiction to sexual orientation elicited strong reaction from the LGBTQ supporters in attendance. 

“Being LGBTQ isn’t a choice, my guy,” Montelongo called from the back of the room. 

“I’m not saying that, ma’am,” Wachacha replied. 

“Well, it’s coming out that way, so change your words please,” she said. 

Wachacha said that he would and then moved Council on to the next item of the agenda. Those who had attended in support of Thompson’s ordinance left the chambers, reconvening outside the Council House to discuss next steps. 

“They said ‘within the law,’ so let’s look at what rights and protections that we have under the law,” said Yellowhill community member Mary Crowe, who is also Montelongo’s mother. 

The group of about a dozen LGBTQ tribal members and supporters discussed the possibility of filing a lawsuit or an ethics complaint — and the need to keep placing the legislation on councilmembers’ desks. 

“Keep submitting it, every month,” said Crowe. 

Leave a comment

6 comments

  • God created humans, men and women. We see in society, since recorded history not all are heterosexual. "God makes no mistakes" right? Well, love is love.
    There are even asexuals, maybe that spinster aunt/uncle who loves the family's children as their own. Homosexuality is rather common, whether some people choose to look away (or deny).
    It is a shame that a sexual act is paramount to recognition love.
    I am a heterosexual woman, old and single. My best friend of thirty years is a gay man and lives with his partner of 20 years. He and I could marry and I could add him to my pension, while we never consummate the union.
    God made us all and God Makes No Mistakes.

    posted by Nona Brown

    Friday, 07/16/2021

  • This is a damn shame . Love is love end of conversation. Proposing a multimillion dollar expansion and then denying an entire segment of the population. I damn sure wouldn’t encourage anyone to spend their money where the support and recognition for lgbtq is not there???? Hell no. I have a gay sister ( married now) been with her partner over 30 years. 81 years old. My son is gay and I support him. Damn shame!

    posted by Linda

    Thursday, 07/15/2021

  • Sad that this has become an issue in today's world. 'The Great Spirit' created man and woman. Modern progressives created all the other genders. God ordained marriage as 'between a man and a woman'. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Why try to change what God has decreed as best for his creation? Are we smarter than He is? Think about that.

    posted by sam hopkins

    Monday, 07/12/2021

  • Sad that this has become an issue in today's world. 'The Great Spirit' created man and woman. Modern progressives created all the other genders. God ordained marriage as 'between a man and a woman'. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Why try to change what God has decreed as best for his creation? Are we smarter than He is? Think about that.

    posted by sam hopkins

    Monday, 07/12/2021

  • This so called LGBT gang is heavily financed the same way that BLM and Antifa are. Its amazing how a fraction of a percent of the population wields so much power and influence.

    posted by Leon Fierstein

    Monday, 07/12/2021

  • Unfair that Life partners, not identified as "next of kin," may not make make health decisions, but instead next of kin might be parents who have disowned and not spoken to a person in years.
    Too bad that the word "marriage" is all over our legal and insurance laws. "Marriage" implies religious bonding, but "next of kin" and legal bonding would be more fair and accurate.

    posted by pegrussell@hotmail.com

    Friday, 07/09/2021

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