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At Least 600,000 Americans Still Don't Have Marriage Equality -- Here's Why

Native American tribes have varying laws about same-sex marriage.

All 50 states now have marriage equality, but the law doesn't apply to at least 600,000 Native Americans. Native American tribes are recognized by the U.S. as sovereign nations, so they aren't covered by the Constitution, and their laws aren't affected by the Supreme Court ruling.

According to Freedom To Marry, at least 12 tribes do allow same-sex marriage. In 2009, five years after Massachusetts became the first state to allow gay marriage, the Coquille tribe in Oregon became the first Native American nation to recognize same-sex marriage, and the first gay couple to be legally married in Oregon received their marriage license from the tribe, even though gay marriage was still banned in the state at the time. But the Navajo and Cherokee Nations, which are the two largest tribes, both specifically ban same-sex marriage, and many smaller tribes follow their lead.

Alray Nelson, a gay member of the Navajo Nation and organizer at the Coalition for Navajo Equality, spoke out about the law in a recent New York Times video.

"My grandparents always mentioned to me that no matter how different someone may be, you respect them for who they are," Nelson says in the video. "And that's the core of what it means...to be Navajo."

Nelson also says that he and and his partner, Brennan Yonnie, won't think about getting married until the tribe changes their law. "Brennan and I made the agreement several years ago that him and I would not talk about or even plan getting married until this law here at home was repealed," he says. "The gay and lesbian community here at home is here to stay. I'm not going anywhere. Brennan's not going anywhere. Because this is our home, too."

Something that comes up frequently in this debate is the role that gay and transgender people have played in Native American histories.

Many Native American tribes had “Two-Spirits”. It was believed that Two-Spirits were blessed with the gift of having the spirit of both a man and a woman, making them more spiritually gifted than those with just one spirit, so they were revered and treated as spiritual leaders.

Before passing a ban on same-sex marriage in 2005, the Navajo Nation recognized "tribal common-law marriages," which meant that if a couple was cohabitating and functioning as a married couple, the tribal government would recognize them as married -- regardless of gender.

“We were recognizing same-sex unions between a man and a man and a woman and a woman long before white people came on to this land,” Alray Nelson told Fusion in February. Now, following the Supreme Court's marriage equality decision, the Coalition for Navajo Equality is fighting extra hard.

"Our Nation has a long march towards equality but we can only move forward," their homepage reads. "While the rest of America celebrates this victory, gay and lesbian couples will continue to fight to be treated with respect by the Navajo Nation government."