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Oklahoma gay couple marry under Native American law

By Heide Brandes

EL RENO, Oklahoma (Reuters) - In a small chapel at historic Fort Reno, a same-sex couple has exchanged wedding vows in Oklahoma, a state where gay marriage is banned.

Jason Pickel, 36, and Darren Black Bear, 45, were legally married on Thursday night after obtaining a marriage license through the Cheyenne Arapaho Tribes, a sovereign nation in Oklahoma.

Gay marriage is banned in Oklahoma but the marriage laws of the Cheyenne-Arapaho tribe do not specify gender and only require that one of the pair be a tribal member.

Pickel, who is not a tribal member, and Black Bear said they originally planned to have a small, intimate wedding and did not even plan to send out invitations.

But word of their approved marriage license, which they got earlier in October, thrust the pair into the national spotlight.

"We didn't think we were doing something super historic or brave," Pickel said. "We just wanted to get married. Now it's turned into such a big deal."

Despite the several dozen media and satellite trucks, the wedding remained a simple affair. Rev. Floyd Black Bear, Black Bear's father and a Methodist minister, officiated.

The ceremony was held at Fort Reno, one of the largest frontier forts in Oklahoma and a key post in the nation's westward expansion and settlement.

"When you walk the grounds, you always feel that history, that something significant happened there," Pickel said. "Today, something significant happened again."

In 2004, three-quarters of Oklahoma voters supported an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Gay marriage is legal in 14 U.S. states as well as the District of Columbia.

When Pickel and Black Bear first asked the tribal courts for a marriage license in 2009, they were denied due to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which limited the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.

But in June, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a landmark victory for gay rights by forcing the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages in states where it is legal.

The ruling, which has led to challenges in federal and state courts to laws that restrict gay marriage, prompted Pickel and Black Bear to reconsider their options.

They are the third same-sex couple to be issued a marriage license by the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, according to a tribal spokeswoman.

Not everyone in the Native American community is supportive of the marriage. Ida Hoffman, the Cheyenne Arapaho chief of staff, spoke out against gay marriage last week and said she would work to make it prohibited under tribal law.

Tribal leaders issued statements afterward supporting the current law.

With Pickel studying for a degree in mortuary science and Black Bear working as a floral supervisor, no honeymoon is planned.

"We go back to work on Monday," Pickel said. "We're just excited to be married."

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Nick Zieminski)

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