Tim LaCroix, 53, a member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, wed longtime partner Gene Barfield, 60, during a ceremony that blended familiar-sounding vows with native symbolism including drumming and the burning of pungent sage. The men joyfully embraced as Tribal Chairman Dexter McNamara pronounced them married.
"I'm the happiest, luckiest guy in the world," Barfield said.
The men, who live in Boyne City, acknowledged the state of Michigan does not recognize their union but said they hoped the tribe's approval would be one more step toward acceptance across the U.S. Federally recognized Native American tribes are self-governing and not bound by the state law.
Same-sex marriage is prohibited under an amendment to the state Constitution approved by voters in 2004. Attorney General Bill Schuette agrees with an opinion issued by his predecessor, Mike Cox, that Michigan law does not regard gay marriages performed in other states as valid, according to spokeswoman Joy Yearout.
The federal Defense of Marriage Act lets states refuse to recognize gay marriages performed in states that allow them, although the law is being challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court. The outcome of that case could affect a pending suit in Detroit that contends Michigan's ban violates the U.S. Constitution.
Either way, the tribe's new policy is likely to result in an eventual legal showdown with the state, said Richard Monette, a professor and federal Indian law specialist at the University of Wisconsin. Gay couples married under tribal jurisdiction may adopt children, get divorced or be required to pay child support. If they move off the reservation and try to have tribal court orders enforced in state courts, "it could be ... a bit of chaos," he said.
At least two other U.S. Indian tribes recognize gay marriage. The Coquille Tribe in North Bend, Ore., began recognizing the unions in 2009 and the Suquamish Tribe in Suquamish, Wash., did so in 2011. Oregon, like Michigan, has a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
Approval from the 4,531-member Michigan tribe didn't happen immediately.
Annette VanDeCar, who is gay, said she and other members began discussing the matter a couple of years ago and proposed a marriage statute to the Little Traverse Bay Bands tribal council in February 2012. It was rejected last summer on a 5-4 vote. But the council approved it by the same margin this month after adding a provision requiring that at least one member of a wedded same-sex couple be a tribal citizen.
"Our tribe is making history. I'm very proud," said Cherie Dominick, who works in its legal department.
The idea that same-sex relationships are immoral is "an imposed Western belief" that contradicts the traditional native concept that people have "two spirits" with male and female natures, she said.
McNamara, who could have vetoed the measure, said he considered it a simple matter of providing equal rights for all tribal citizens. "Everyone has a different view of what love is, and all are deserving of respect," he said.
He signed the bill in the tribal government building to applause from several dozen onlookers. Shortly afterward, LaCroix and Barfield — dressed casually in open-necked shirts and sweaters affixed with white lapel flowers — stepped forward to become the first couple wed under its provisions.
After reciting pledges to each other, they were presented with a slender maple limb bent into a hoop that represents the four stages of life. Using ribbon of different colors, they knotted sacred plants — tobacco, cedar, sage and sweetgrass — to the wood.
Although their relationship began three decades ago in the U.S. Navy, they said marriage was important to fulfill a longtime dream and to send a message to others.
"We want to show people in the gay community that you can do this — you can have a sustained, fulfilling relationship and people will accept you," LaCroix said. "Times are changing."
The men are unsure whether they'll be able to file taxes as a couple or whether Barfield will be recognized as a dependent by LaCroix's health insurer. Other legal hurdles remain. But on Friday, they shared cake with well-wishers and relished their status as a married couple.
"There's no way I can love him more than I already have, but this is still a whole new thing," Barfield said. "My husband — I can't believe I'm finally saying that."