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Tribal Court Orders Arizona Tribe to Recognize Same-Sex Marriages

The Ak-Chin American Indian community is the fifth Arizona tribe to allow same-sex marriage on its reservation.
/ Source: The Associated Press

PHOENIX — A tribal court has cleared the way for gay couples to marry on an American Indian reservation in the Phoenix area after a two-year legal battle that could have repercussions for Native Americans elsewhere.

The court ruled that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry under the constitution of the Ak-Chin community and the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Cleo Pablo, Tara Roy-Pablo
Cleo Pablo, left, and her wife, Tara Roy-Pablo, pose outside their home in Phoenix in 2015.Matt York / AP file

"This decision made it clear that the tribal law was unconstitutional under tribal law" and not just U.S. federal law, said attorney Sonia Martinez, who represented the same-sex couple in the lawsuit. "I have no idea if other tribes are going to do the same thing, but I think it at least opens the door."

Ak-Chin Indian Community Chairman Robert Miguel said he would not appeal the ruling.

"Today marks the conclusion of a lengthy but necessary legal exercise — one that respects the rights of tribal members and honors the sacred sovereignty and self-governance of the Ak-Chin Indian Community," Miguel said.

The court ruling said four other Arizona tribes recognize same-sex marriages, including the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and the White Mountain Apache tribe.

The Arizona Republic reported Cleo Pablo, who grew up on the Ak-Chin Reservation south of the Valley, filed the lawsuit.

She and her longtime partner, Tara Roy-Pablo, married shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court extended the right to marry to same-sex couples nationwide. While their marriage was recognized in Arizona, the certificate was meaningless on the reservation.

Pablo said she never set out to be an activist, but just to get the same rights as any other married couple.

"You're taught growing up that you have to stand up for what's right," she said. "I actually did it."

The tribe is now in the process of reworking its laws and policies on marriage to comply with the ruling, Miguel said.