The largest tribe in Alaska said it will conduct marriage ceremonies -- including for same-sex couples -- as part of its effort to exercise its tribal sovereignty and provide more services to its 29,000 members.
The president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, based in Juneau, said this may be the first time an Alaska tribe has offered such services.
The state, concerned about threats to its authority, has often challenged attempts by tribal governments to expand their powers. Gov. Bill Walker, however, has indicated his administration will work closely with tribes to resolve issues instead of facing them in court.
Cori Mills, an assistant attorney general at the Department of Law, said the state hasn't yet seen details about the effort. The tribe's statute was recently approved and announced Monday.
"We have not seen what Tlingit-Haida is proposing and need to know more before being able to evaluate it," she said.
The council's president, Richard Peterson, said the effort is not designed to challenge the state. He said a tribal marriage certificate has the same validity as a certificate issued by any state government, because both are sovereign entities.
"We didn't set out to make a point or draw a line in the sand," he said. "Our point is to assert our sovereignty in the best interests of our tribal citizens."
If the state does challenge the new service, "we will defend that right," Peterson said.
Under the tribe's newly passed statute, tribal members and partners are eligible to be married, said Debra O'Gara, the chief justice of the tribe's court system.
The process to apply closely resembles the state's process, she said. An application will soon be online at the tribe's website. They are currently available at the tribe's courthouse in Juneau.
Peterson said he's heard from a few couples -- all of them opposite-sex -- eager to be married by the tribe.
"It's important to distinguish this wasn't really a same-sex movement," Peterson said. "It was about establishing a marriage statute. As part of that we recognized same-sex marriage."
Equal treatment for tribal citizens was the goal, he said.
"I'm straight, but I'd hope if I were gay not only would my family and parents love me for who I am, but my tribe would, too," Peterson said. "For me, that's what this is about."
Peterson said preventing suicide is a top priority for the tribe, and that suicide rates in gay and lesbian communities are "staggering."
"If this helps one person who might have contemplated suicide feel loved and embraced so they don't take that route, then we're winning," he said.
The state has requested that its challenge to same-sex marriages in Alaska, currently before the Ninth Circuit, be put on hold. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to resolve the question nationwide this summer.