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Originally published August 4, 2011 at 9:02 PM | Page modified August 4, 2011 at 10:16 PM

Nicole Brodeur

Suquamish land, where gay marriage is welcome

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Of course I had to go out there. Had to see with my own eyes the one place in Washington state where same-sex marriage is no big deal.

I'm not sure what I expected to find at the Suquamish reservation, but I can tell you hand-wringing worrywarts that there wasn't a single rainbow flag or drag queen on stilts. No dirty dancing beside the pumps at the Shell station or Cher songs blasting in the casino.

Just a group of elders eating lunch, cracking jokes and wondering what I was doing there with an open notebook. Nothing here to report.

"Live and let live," said elder Rich Demain, 83.

"I've been married damned near 50 years, and if I ever get out of it, I'm never going to do it again," cracked elder Bruce Belmont, 75. "Let them do what they want."

This tribe of about 1,000 people is more evolved than the state it's in.

On Monday, without any fanfare and in a unanimous vote, the tribal council made it legal for same-sex couples to marry.

Urged on by tribal member Heather Purser, 28, the council amended its constitution's marriage ordinance to give same-sex couples all the rights and privileges that tribal law gives heterosexual couples. (Hold off on the ferry ticket: One of you must be Suquamish to qualify).

The decision won't affect federal laws that prohibit federal benefits — such as Social Security — for same-sex couples.

But in doing something that some believe goes against the Bible, and traditional family values, the Suquamish are keeping a tradition of their own.

"We wanted to continue our values of being accepting and tolerant and generous to the rights of our people," Leonard Forsman, the tribal chairman, told me. "We want to allow our people to be happy and free. Our tradition is to be open."

Sit at the lunch table long enough, and you start to understand where that comes from.

Demain told me of being taken off the reservation and sent to a church-run boarding school.

Belmont told me of being called "a black Indian" by a woman he had admired.

Thomas Mabe, 68, told me of having his hair cut off by the principal at the public school, and of the relative who came home from war, riddled with scars, only to be refused service at a local tavern.

All these years later, those things still sting. As a result, the Suquamish never want anyone else to hurt that way, to be singled out, or turned away or forced to suffer for being who they are.

"When you grow up with that around you," Mabe said, "you just don't do it."

Said Noelle Purser, 24: "They're more accepting because of what they went through."

Purser recalled how her sister, Heather, prodded the tribal council along in serious and not-so-serious ways. Heather once left a broken-down car in front of the tribal offices, telling Forsman that she would only move it when gays and lesbians could marry.

Tom Curley, 53, has worked for the tribe for 19 years and is its mapping program manager. He is not Suquamish. And he's gay.

"The vote brought tears to my eyes," he said. "It's a great thing. But it's a very quiet, workaday solution to a problem."

James Abler, 24, an assistant teacher at the tribe's Marion Forsman Boushie Early Learning Center, came out eight years ago.

"I've never had any trouble," he said of growing up gay on the reservation. "They know me. They know who I am and what I'm about."

He's been fielding questions all week about when he and his partner — a Zuni Indian from New Mexico — are getting married. ("Marriage, for me, isn't a big deal," he said.)

But if they did wed? Everyone would show up.

"It's just normal to everybody for two people who love each other to formalize their relationship and celebrate in front of everybody," he said. "I'm very proud of being Suquamish."

Still, the national media attention and the resulting comments from far and wide are a little uncomfortable. These are not fussy folks.

"It'd be nice to have as many people have an opinion about the restoration of habitat, the shape of the shorelines or the purity of the water," said Joseph Davalos, the superintendent of tribal education.

It would be nice, wouldn't it?

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

Happy anniversary, Harry & Paul.

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