The little tribe that could: Inside the Suquamish decision to legalize gay marriage

Suquamish gay marriage advocate Heather Purser never considered her tribe progressive. That is until she challenged them to stand up for her rights - and they did.

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A Seattle statue of Suquamish Chief Sealth, gay pride flag in hand, after the Suquamish community vote to pass gay marriage.

Suquamish gay marriage advocate Heather Purser never considered her tribe progressive. That is until she challenged them to stand up for her rights - and they did.

In Coastal Indian culture everything worth accomplishing is started by one stubborn person with an idea. And if that idea is good enough and they are persistent, other tribal people will rise to the occasion to support them and see the vision through. The trick, I’ve learned, is to believe in both yourself and your people.

Still, my work to gain recognition of same sex marriage within the Suquamish tribe could not have been accomplished without the examples set by other strong leaders in Northwest native culture. These individuals have seen need within their communities and devoted themselves to creating a solution. 

One of these is Frank Brown, the driving force behind the modern day canoe journeys. In 1989 the Suquamish tribe, like several others more integrated with non-native culture, didn’t possess even one ocean-going canoe. That is until Brown, a young member of the Bella Bella Nation, challenged a gathering of coastal tribes in Seattle to meet him on his B.C. reservation four years later.

The Suquamish people responded to the challenge, sending a handful of youth to Canada to re-learn the craft of hand-carving canoes. Though just one canoe can take several months or years to carve from a single giant cedar tree, four years later 30 hand-carved canoes and 3000 people from around the Northwest made the journey to Bella Bella. 

Today the Suquamish are just one of 70 coastal tribes in Washington, Oregon, and Canada that continues Brown's tradition every year. Each July tribal people travel by canoe to gather and celebrate our culture with ceremonies, songs, and the sharing of food and gifts — a ritual known as Tribal Journeys. It is the largest demonstration of thriving Northwestern Native American culture today and is largely responsible for our dramatic cultural resurgence in the wake of atrocities like the Boarding School era, Indian relocation and the Dawes Act. 

Thanks to Native American leaders like Brown, I had a blueprint for creating change within my tribe. Still, before I could confront them about recognizing same-sex marriage, I had to learn how to be okay with myself as a gay person. A process that was made much more difficult by the physical and verbal violence I’d endured at the hands of my mother when I came out as a teen. 

Luckily, at Western Washington University, where I went to college, the atmosphere towards peoples' differences was one of encouragement: Students and faculty were not only accepting of differences, they were excited about them. It was the first place I’d really felt safe with my sexuality and free to be myself. Seeing so many people living their lives out in the open made me realize that I could bring the peace I felt home with me to other gay and lesbian members of the Suquamish Tribe.

It was then that I began speaking with members of the tribe one-on-one about our traditions and values concerning homosexuality. I didn't come to them with an agenda in mind – I just wanted to understand their views while giving them a chance to get to know my own. I talked to people in my tribe about being gay and about gay marriage openly and without defensiveness. And if people were a little turned off by the idea at first, it didn’t last long because – as I’ve discovered – if you are open to people, people are much more likely to be open to you.

In the summer of 2008, after I graduated from college, I approached the 7-member Suquamish tribal council and asked that gay marriage be recognized within our tribe. They were willing, but complacent, assigning a tribal lawyer to help me with my efforts and then checking out. After three years of back and forth with the lawyer and the tribal council, I decided to reach out to my community through our annual public council meeting, where the entire enrolled Suquamish community gathers to discuss and vote on issues and new council members.  

It was at this March 2011 meeting that I finally built up enough courage to stand up and ask the people I’ve known all my life to support me in my goal to make Suquamish a more open community for gays and lesbians. I reminded them that I’d been working towards this goal for a long time and that I’d connected with many of them individually. I also reminded them of our history as a progressive, open-minded tribe and I encouraged them to continue this tradition rather than discriminate towards our own people the way we’d been discriminated against in the past.

That day my community voted unanimously to pass gay marriage. And, in the following months, no one came forward to argue.

Of course there were times I felt doubtful about whether I would be able to keep pushing forward without anyone behind me or beside me. But I also remembered the stories about people like Frank Brown, who had made big cultural changes through persistence. So I kept going. And even though I did face opposition on an individual basis, the tribe as a whole proved to be just as supportive and accepting as our traditions teach us to be. 

While the process helped me personally grow stronger, I also learned a valuable lesson about my people. For a long time I thought all of our beliefs and teachings were just a bunch of crap we told each other in order to feel better about ourselves and to cover up our long history of problems like violence, alcoholism, and even child molestation. I was bitter, angry, and distrustful of my family and the people I grew up with — although some part of me always knew my anger was mostly a response to the abuse I’d seen and experienced growing up. 

The unanimous decision of the Suquamish tribe to pass gay marriage has helped me heal.  But I have also been reminded that the tribe I am a part of is itself still in the process of healing from our own history of abuse. It gives me so much hope to see how far we’ve come and to know that it’s not just me — everyone in Suquamish is waking up to the possibility of change.


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