The Coquille Indian Tribe on the southern Oregon coast, who are a federally recognised sovereign nation, are not bound by Oregon’s constitution, and so allow gay marriage amongst its members.

The Coquilles (which tribal leaders prefer to pronounce KO-kwell) are probably the first tribe in the nation to legalise same-sex marriage, says Brian Gilley, a University of Vermont anthropology professor and author of the book, Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country.

Many Native American tribes historically accepted same-sex relationships, Gilley says.

But after a lesbian couple married under an ambiguous Cherokee law in Oklahoma three years ago, that tribe’s council adopted a law banning same-sex marriage.

Other tribes across the nation, including the Navajos, the nation’s largest tribe, passed similar bans, he says.

Because the Coquilles have federal status, a marriage within the tribe would be federally recognised.

That would violate the Defence of Marriage Act, a law that says the federal government “may not treat same-sex relationships as marriages for any purpose.”

The federal government could challenge the Coquille law as a way of testing the limits of tribal independence.

The tribe concluded that the Defense of Marriage Act may bar the tribe from conferring federal benefits or money on same-sex spouses, said Melissa Cribbins, assistant tribal attorney.

Ken Tanner, chief of the Coquilles said: “Native Americans are sensitive to discrimination of any kind.

“For our tribe, we want people to walk in the shoes of other people and learn to respect differences.

“Through that, we think we build a stronger community.”

The new law establishes tribal rules for recognizing marriage, whether for gay or heterosexual couples.

It will not take effect until the tribe also creates laws for divorce and child custody, tribal attorney Brett Kenney says.

The seven-member tribal council expects to adopt such laws next year.