Tribal nations hold a unique place within the U.S. Although members of these nations are bound by many federal and state laws, the tribes also have a good deal of sovereignty -- the authority to govern themselves. One crucial area where tribal law often conflicts with U.S. federal law is marriage equality.

Few Tribes Recognize Same-Sex Marriage

One man whose campaign for marriage equality was spurred by his wish to marry his boyfriend, says that only 35 of the 560-plus tribes recognized by the U.S. government accept same-sex marriages as valid. He founded the group Dine Equality to fight for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in his own Navajo Nation and other indigenous tribes.

This advocate says the majority of Navajos are accepting of LGBT people. He asserts that it's the the tribal council that is preventing them from having equal rights -- even though tribal nations were long ago accepting of LGBT members before they became influenced by Christianity.

A "White Man's Way of Thinking"

The council outlawed same-sex marriage in 2005. A former Navajo Nation president reportedly called same-sex marriage a "white man's way of thinking." Such beliefs, however, are putting tribal law at odds with U.S. law. One law professor noted that even though "tribal sovereignty remains precarious," the longer that tribes continue to ban same-sex marriage, "the higher the likelihood that they will negatively impact perceptions of tribes and tribal justice." This can potentially have a negative impact on Americans' views of indigenous people.

The founder of Dine Equity says that at a time when LGBT people across the country fear that their rights are threatened by those at the top of the federal government, tribal governments can use their sovereignty "as a way to protect our people" rather than ostracize them.

Federal Law Takes Precedence in Some Areas, but Not Marriage

It's interesting to note that LGBT tribal employees whose source of income is federal grants are protected by the same workplace discrimination laws as other federal employees. However, the federal government doesn't control tribal laws regarding same-sex marriage.

Native Americans who wish to marry someone of the same gender may have added challenges if they want to remain part of their tribe and live on their reservation. A family law attorney who specializes in handling these cases involving tribal law can provide guidance and assistance.