New bill seeks to legalize same-sex marriage on the Navajo Nation

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Lawmakers on the Navajo Nation are seeking to repeal the tribe's law that prohibits same-sex marriage and remove any provisions that discriminate against such unions.

The Diné Marriage Act has been law since 2005 and recognizes marriages between opposite-sex couples, regardless of where contracted, but voids and prohibits marriage between persons of the same sex.

The bill proposes that the tribe acknowledge and recognize marriage equality among all people on the Navajo Nation.

"As a lawmaker, this historic legislation was introduced to recognize that we are all equal and we support our LGBTQ+ family members by repealing outdated discriminatory laws," Delegate Eugene Tso said on March 23, a day after he introduced the bill.

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Lori Howard finishes decorating her vehicle before the start of the Diné Pride Cruise on June 26, 2020 in Window Rock, Arizona.

Tso, along with delegates Eugenia Charles-Newton and Charlaine Tso, are sponsoring the legislation, which is being hailed by tribal members who have been advocating for marriage equality.

"Our laws should allow us to choose to marry the person we love and equally protect us from hate and discrimination," said Josie Raphaelito, program director of Navajo Nation Pride.

The bill calls on amending provisions within the Navajo Nation Code to conform with the repeal, including omitting gender references in common-law marriages and on tribal marriage license forms.

Clockwise from left, the transgender flag, Navajo Nation flag, gay pride flag, equality flag and inclusive flag fly in front of the Navajo Nation Council chamber on June 26, 2020 in Window Rock, Arizona.

However, it keeps intact traditional Navajo wedding ceremonies as taking place between a man and a woman.

"Traditional Navajo society places a great importance upon the institution of marriage and believes that the elaborate ritual of marrying using the traditional method is believed to be blessed by the 'Holy People,'" the bill states.

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For Alray Nelson and Brennen Yonnie, the change in tribal law would mean they could obtain a tribal marriage license – a step the couple wants to do as they develop their family life on the Navajo Nation.

"It reaffirms our union of 12 years," said Nelson, who is executive director of Diné Pride, the annual event that celebrates the Diné LGBTQ community.

He added that the legislation affords protection to the community and ends discrimination when applying for homesite leases, seeking adoption or guardianship, and sharing health insurance coverage, if they are tribal employees.

"We urge our Navajo leaders and council to stand with us because we're your family members," Nelson said.

Krystle Headley writes the word "love" on the back window of her vehicle prior to the start of the Diné Pride Cruise on June 26, 2020 in Window Rock, Arizona.

Raphaelito said she and her wife support the bill because it abolishes the ban, and it would send a message across the United States and world that the tribe accepts the LGBTQ+ community.

"Marriage equality would allow us to make our dream of returning home to Diné Bikéyah to live and build a home among our family a reality," Raphaelito said.

The Diné Marriage Act became law in June 2005 when the 20th Navajo Nation Council voted to override then President Joe Shirley Jr.'s veto.

When Shirley vetoed the April 2005 resolution to prohibit marriage between same-sex couples, he wrote to the council that it is the responsibility of the Navajo people to raise the question and address it through an initiative – rather than 88 delegates determining the outcome.

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In a March 23 statement to The Daily Times, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said, "The Diné Marriage Act is an issue that deeply impacts many of our people, families and our overall society. It's a conversation that should be inclusive of all of our Navajo people and a decision left to the people, especially our elders, not just 24 delegates. As a previous member of the council, I sponsored legislation to put forth a referendum to recognize that the Navajo people are the governing body of the Navajo Nation and I stand by that to this day. The people should decide this issue through a referendum, and I will respect the voices of the people."

The bill is now under the five-day public comment period. It becomes eligible for consideration by tribal council committees on March 28.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at

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