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Marriage Equality Resolution Struck Down By Tribal Council During Pride Month

Lilly Knoepp/BPR News
Bear sculptures dot downtown Cherokee on the Qualla Boundary near the Tribal Council House.

It’s been six years since the U.S. Supreme Court made its landmark ruling, making same-sex marriage legal.  But that ruling doesn’t apply to sovereign nations in the U.S. – including the Eastern Band of the Cherokee on the Qualla Boundary.  

A year before the Obergefell decision, the Eastern Band Tribal Council passed a resolution codifying the tribe would only recognize marriage between a man and woman. 

Tamara Thompson wants that to change.

“I've never liked labels. I'm just me. I just love Jillian,” said Thompson.

Credit Courtesy of Tamara Thompson
Tamara Thompson(left) and her partner Jillian Goldstein hope that same-sex marriages will soon be recognized by the Eastern Band of Cherokee.

Thompson is a member of the Eastern Band and a member of the LGBTQ community.  She met her partner Jillian Goldstein while working at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. 

“As a non-enrolled member I am definitely taking a step back a bit but I do support my partner 100 percent and I want to be there for her and I want to see this go through,” said Goldstein.

The pair could legally be married as citizens of North Carolina and the United States.  But their marriage wouldn’t be recognized by the Eastern Band.  

“The Cherokees have always historically valued humanity and being human and how you treat each other,” said Thompson. “It’s important to me to that it's accepted – that I can be accepted. I want to make sure this gets done first. I’m not going to do this until everyone can do it.”  

During her time at home during the pandemic, Thompson crafted a resolution for the tribal council, which would recognize same-sex marriage, by the Eastern Band.

“We finally just were like, 'Hey, I got the time to do this. Let's do this.' Like I didn't put any forethought into,'oh, this is an election year.' We need to get this done now. I just wanted it done. And I wanted it done in a way that the community can celebrate around at Pride,” said Thompson.

June is Pride month. The tribal council is currently in election season. The primary election was on June 3rd. The general election will be on September 2nd.  

Thompson brought that resolution to tribal council this month, but was immediately declared ‘dead on the floor’ by Tribal Council Chairman Adam Wachacha.

During this year, Thompson learned a lot about the tribal code. She said that tribal council should not have been able to let her bill die.

“About two weeks before the session I was called and they said, 'This is the first session. It’s just a reading, where it's given a number. It's a formality and no action can be taken, so you don't even need to be there,'” said Thompson, who did not attend the council meeting.

According to the code Under Sec. 117-38(b) when a resolution is first presented at council, it is numbered and then no action can be taken for 25 days. The code reads: “No member may propose any motion or amendment to the ordinance at the first reading.”

Thompson said the tribal council’s action hurt.

“It was hard to take, I felt a little emotional about it because it felt like a personal attack. It felt like they weren't just dismissing, you know, legislation, but they were dismissing an identity that I have for myself,” said Thompson.

But after that decision, Thompson found more allies.

“I had no idea until I saw the One Feather article that was let out last week.”  

That’s Atsei Cooper.  She was raised by two moms on the Qualla Boundary.  She reached out to Thompson on Facebook:

“I said I would love to work with you and I would love to form some sort of LGBTQ organization and change the culture around here on the rez,” said Cooper, who is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band. 

So Cooper started a Facebook group which has already grown to almost 400 members in less than two weeks. 

“I’m the organizer of Nudale Adantedi, which means ‘different hearted different spirited,’” said Cooper, translating the Cherokee phrase. Cooper identifies as bi-sexual and started the group with a friend.

She explains the goal of the group this way:

“Our goal is to bring same-sex marriage to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and on top of that we want decolonial education and changing the homophobic and transphobic culture that we have adopted here,” said Cooper.  

Cooper said it’s time for all of Western North Carolina – Eastern Band included - to be more accepting of the LGBTQ community.

“There are a lot of things that need to change around here. And people my age, we want a different and better Cherokee. We do. One that returns to our traditional values,” said Cooper, who is 22-years-old.

Tamara Thompson has resubmitted the ordinance for the next tribal council meeting on July 8. Supporters plan to attend the meeting, and are planning a demonstration before it.

Update: BPR did not hear back from Tribal Council Chairman Adam Wachacha or Vice Chairman David Wolfe before press time. 

Update: Tribal Council meetings are usually on the 1st of the month but the July meeting is scheduled for July 8th. The agenda has not yet been released

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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