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HARBOR SPRINGS (Detroit Free Press) - The groom wore a black sweater. The other groom wore a red one.

Tim LaCroix, 53, and Gene Barfield, 60, were in the enrollment office this morning at the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians government facility.

The couple took turns filling out an application to get married, paid the $15 fee and received a marriage license. Both smiled nervously.

It was a historic day. Not just for them and not just for the tribe that LaCroix belongs to, but for Michigan too.

The two men were about to be the first same-sex couple to be legally married in this state.

Last year, the Odawa tribal council debated a resolution to recognize gay marriage, but the measure failed by one vote. When it was reintroduced, the language was changed to require at least one spouse to be a tribal citizen, and that swayed support. On March 2, it passed by a 5-4 vote.

All that was needed was the signature of tribal chairman Dexter McNamara, whose veto would have required a difficult 7-2 council majority to override.

McNamara not only signed it, but also asked to perform the wedding ceremony.

"I've always felt that either you believe in equal rights or you are prejudiced," McNamara said. "We don't have a dividing line in this tribe. Everyone deserves to live the lives of their choice."

Out of 500 federally recognized tribes in the country, and a dozen in Michigan, the Odawa tribe became the first ever to legalize gay marriage in the state and only the third in the nation.

And because of tribal sovereignty, neither the state's constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage nor the federal Defense of Marriage Act can stop them.

"This is their turf," Barfield said, standing in the tribal offices. "They have their own government, they have their own police force, they have their own rules and regulations. They're very big on respect, and for them to say to us 'We respect your relationship and your prerogative to define it as you choose' is really special."

"I'm so proud of my tribe for doing this," LaCroix added. "I just can't say enough."

The couple met in 1983 while both were on active duty in the Navy. They live in northern Michigan, where they garden, assemble model railroads and share two dogs and a cat.

"We've been partners for 30 years in the way people use the word 'partner' for a same sex couple," Barfield said. "Now we're not going to be partners anymore. We're going to be spouses."

They wanted to get married at the signing ceremony for the statute, which gave them barely two weeks to prepare.

They hastily ordered cupcakes for the impromptu reception to follow. They found a tribal member to perform a traditional ceremony, alongside the secular one. They made little pouches of tobacco to hand out in a nod to tribal custom. And they invited friends and family from this small-town region.

About three dozen guests filled the seats arranged in the lobby this morning. There were relatives from both sides, beefy tribal members, employees who work in the building and wanted to wish the couple well, and a contingent from the hardware store where LaCroix works.

"We're just all giddy over it," said Kathy Hughes, his longtime coworker. "They're like family to us."

Once McNamara signed the bill, tribe communications coordinator Annette VanDeCar acknowledged it was a controversial decision.

"I'll be honest," she told the crowd. "There are people in our community that aren't supportive of what is happening today, but that's OK. We as Indians are taught to respect people as individuals, and as individual people have the right to decide what is best for them."

For this couple, a few tweaks were necessary in both the paperwork and the ceremony, like changing the word "wife" in the vows and on the license application to "spouse." But it otherwise was a standard civil ceremony.

The chairman read the vows, and LaCroix went first in repeating them.

For better or for worse, to love and to cherish, from this day forward.

"I do," he said.

Then came Barfield's turn, and his composure melted a little. As he read the vows, his voice began to crack and his eyes grew moist. All the while, he looked at LaCroix with a beam of a smile.

"I do."

They exchanged rings, and the chairman pronounced them married. They punctuated the ceremony with a brief kiss and a long, long hug.

Then they repeated it with a tribal ceremony using the sage, the feathers, the maple branch and the drum that were carefully laid out on a table.

There were no activist speeches, no protesters - only a crowd witnessing a wedding that was unlike any they'd ever seen, but was really no different than any other.

"We're just so excited for them," Hughes said. "They've been together 30 years. It's longer than a lot of marriages have lasted."

John Carlisle is a columnist and can be reached at jcarlisle@freepress.com or 313-222-6582.

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