WINNEBAGO, Neb. - What started as a seemingly routine tribal council vote sparked serious controversy on the Winnebago Reservation in northeast Nebraska this spring.

That vote – which appeared to ban the recognition of same-sex marriage – sparked anger and fear in the tribe’s LGBTQ members and local residents. It inspired a video by a relative of a famed Native activist. The video was viewed by more than a million people and compelled hundreds to write, call, email and march to protest.

And it resulted in something you don’t see much in American politics in 2022. 

The tribal council listened to the criticism. It met again. And it changed its mind.

“I feel like it was impactful. And, you know, it may have been maybe difficult to hear for some people. But I feel like that needed to happen,” said Willy Bass, one of the protesters, of the months-long fight. “It was bigger than any single one of us. This is about setting up the future of our tribe, for success, for safety, for equal rights for everybody.”

It started mundanely enough on March 24. 

That night, the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska's tribal court sought clarification on same-sex marriage within its constitution. While same-sex marriage has been legal across the United States, including in Nebraska, since 2015, not all Native American tribes have updated their legal codes to reflect it. Some tribes rolled it into their existing laws. Others, like the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, approved an amendment recognizing same-sex marriage.

During its monthly meeting with tribal attorneys, the council was asked to add recognition of same-sex marriage and divorce to the tribe's legal code. Vice-chairman Bryan Chamberlain introduced the motion. Councilmember Lorelai DeCora seconded it. 

That's when things went off the rails.

Some council members, including Aric Armell, a first-term council member, questioned whether the council should support the resolution. Council members allegedly used homophobic language during the discussion, including referring to LGBTQ residents as “trash people,” who should be banned from the tribe, according to five people who watched the tribal council meeting online. 

And four members – the majority of the council – voted against the resolution to recognize same-sex marriage in the tribe’s legal code.

Armell did not respond to multiple requests for an interview via email, Facebook and phone messages left with the tribal office.

Believing some council members may have misunderstood the role of Schiange – the Winnebago term for LGBTQ – Sunshine Thomas Bear sought to clarify the history. Thomas Bear, the director of Angel DeCora Museum at Winnebago’s Little Priest College, met with council members after the meeting to review LGBTQ people throughout the tribe’s history. 

“I don’t want to say they were held higher, but they were often prophets and healers,” she said. 

Two Spirit is a relatively new term created 30 years ago by Indigenous people, Thomas Bear said. It’s since become accepted and embraced as a common term used by and for LGBTQ Native Americans. 

And Two Spirits became vocal about the council’s initial vote. Tribal meetings are open to Winnebago citizens and can be watched on YouTube only by tribal members. 

When 17-year-old Tyler LaMere saw the video of the meeting, he decided he needed to act. 

Tyler is the great-nephew of Frank LeMere, a famed Native activist who, before his death in 2019, successfully led efforts to shut down alcohol sales in Whiteclay. 

Tyler LaMere was 11 when he came out as Two Spirit. He was 15 when he came out as a transgender male.

“For a long time, I knew I was different,” he said. 

He decided to make a TikTok video. He recapped the vote, noting homophobic language being used during discussion and called for help in appealing the decision. Some 1.5 million have since viewed it on that social media platform.

The video inspired hundreds of people – LGBTQ and supporters, Native and non-Native – to swamp council members with phone calls and emails. 

The social media campaign led to the council’s reconsideration during an April 11 meeting. Council member Isaac Smith, one of the four who had voted to ban same-sex marriage from the tribal code, introduced a motion to reconsider that vote. It passed 5-0 with two abstentions. Then the council voted to add same-sex marriage to the tribal court code. (The council previously voted to add same-sex divorce to the code during the March 24 meeting.)

Same-sex marriage was now legally recognized by the Winnebago Tribe, but the struggle left a hole in the tribe’s fabric, said Willy Bass, who works as a community impact and engagement manager for Ho-Chunk Inc. Bass, who married his husband Antonio in Sioux City in 2012, couldn’t have been married by a Winnebago judge if the original vote had been sustained, he said.

“But, I could get a divorce in the same court, like I would be correcting a wrong,” he said.

The council didn’t realize its impact on younger Winnebagos coming out, Bass said. It took him until attending college in Montana, and surrounding himself with people he could trust, before he publicly announced he was gay.

“When someone comes out, they have to prepare for two things. One is to be accepted,” he said. “That lifts so much stress and burden off your shoulders. The second thing is rejection by the people you most care about, your mom and your dad. My plan, if I was rejected, was to leave here. If I was going to lose my family, I didn’t want to be here.”

Bass was one of the fortunate ones, he thinks. When he told his mother he had met a man, she simply asked when she was going to meet him. 

If young people don’t feel that they trust people enough to come out, the consequences can be dire.

“They stay in hiding,” he said. “They keep it bottled up. They turn to alcoholism, drug abuse. They turn to suicide. Whatever it is that helps relieve them from feeling that stress inside themselves every day.”

Smith, one council member who changed his mind, said he and other council members felt blindsided by the initial resolution to add same-sex marriage to the court code. He doesn’t oppose same-sex marriage, but wanted to have a conversation about the need to add it to the court’s code, Smith said.

He originally voted against approving the resolution, he said, because he believed it would lead tribal members to fight.

“I don’t want Indian fighting Indian,” he said. 

The activism – and the education – didn’t end when the tribal council overturned its vote.

Two dozen LGBTQ tribal members and supporters rallied in front of the tribal court building on the southern edge of the reservation. Then, nearly two dozen people marched to the council’s April 18 meeting. Three members of the LGBTQ community addressed the council, including Bass, LaMere and Curtis Alexander, president of the Winnebago Two Spirits organization.

“We are the only ones who have to identify ourselves,” Bass said. “Straight people don’t have to defend themselves.”

Alexander, an Omaha tribal member who grew up in Winnebago, told council members that he and others were tired of fighting this battle.

“I hear it every day,” he said. “I hear the slurs. On TV. From co-workers. It’s challenging. I can take it, but it gets hard.”

Members of the Winnebago Two Spirits seek to take on today’s challenges, so that future generations can just live their lives, Bass said.

“My husband and I will be OK,” Bass said. “We’re doing this for future generations. We want them to be themselves. We want it to just be.”

For elders, education is key, council member Louis LaRose said. 

“I support them,” the tribal council member said. “I just need to know how they want me to address them. I need to know them. Their family. I need to know who they are.”

LaRose thought it was important that the council heard from the Two Spirit community this spring..

“You have to educate people like me,” he said. “I don’t like to offend people. It’s a learning experience for us.”

Winnebago Chairwoman Victoria Kitcheyan, a longtime LGBTQ supporter, hosted a listening session for council members, giving Two Spirits an opportunity to share their concerns and ideas for the future. Only one council member attended, suggesting there’s still work left to do for LGBTQ tribal members and their supporters, Alexander said. 

But the council did recently approve a resolution recognizing June as Winnebago Pride Month. It was one of only a few rural communities in Nebraska to do so. “You usually only see this with urban Indian groups,” Alexander said.

The council also approved funding a community lunch sponsored by the Two Spirits group, as well as authorizing a paid day off for tribal employees interested in attending it.

The key to openly accepting Two Spirit people is to decolonize, Thomas Bear said. Native Americans have allowed themselves to move away from Indigenous traditions and culture, accepting more Euro-American views on some social issues, including those on LGBTQ rights and equality, she said.

“So many things that we say, think and do are based on colonization,” Thomas Bear said.

The protest before the council, and the resulting conversation about LGBTQ rights, will help tribal members for decades to come, Bass said.

“We’re doing this for future generations,” he said. “We want them to be themselves.”