CASS LAKE - "Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you Arnold and Matthew, partners for life."
And, with that, what is believed to be the first gay marriage on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation was complete as longtime partners Arnold Dahl and Matthew Wooley were wed Friday afternoon by Judge Paul Day, chief judge of Leech Lake Tribal Court.
"This is the most important person in the world to me," Arnold said, minutes before the ceremony began, his voice slightly breaking.
The couple, who will share the last name Dahl-Wooley, has been campaigning to wed for more than two years on the reservation and found out just Wednesday that Friday was to be the day they long had been fighting for.
"You've brought out the best things in me," Arnold said, as the couple prepared to exchange vows. "I never thought I'd reach this point in my life, and the obstacles that we've overcome on our journey, and the things that we've accomplished over the years, and the stuff that we've been able to get back, it just overwhelms me, the positive things that you've brought out in me. And I never would have been able to achieve that without you."
The couple met almost 15 years ago at a bar in Oregon and have considered getting married off and on for more than a decade. At one time, they and their families planned out and booked a wedding celebration to be held in California, whose state Supreme Court had ruled same-sex marriages legal. But, just a month before the trip, California voters voted to disallow gay marriage.
"It's been sometimes, a really uphill battle ... but I'm starting to see the level playing ground, you know, it's starting to level out and I can see the clouds parting and I can see the sun coming up," Matthew said, in preparation for his vows. "You're standing there with me and it made it all worthwhile. We're going to move forward and do more and more for this community and this is just the first step. I could not think of anyone else to be standing here with right here. I love you very much."
After returning to Bena about a decade ago to visit Arnold's father, the couple together decided to purchase, renovate and operate the Lake Winnibigoshish General Store, which previously was run by Arnold's father and grandfather and constructed in 1932 by his great grandfather.
"It's a double-edged sword in a way," Matthew said. "Not only were we trying to be accepted just living here, but we were trying to build a successful business at the same time."
Admittedly, he said, there were some community members and business owners who told them they did not support their relationship.
But Arnold and Matthew never hid their couplehood.
"Ten years later, you should see the text messages I got this morning," Matthew said. "All congratulating us, telling us how happy they are for us, how much we deserve this. These are the same people who before were not for this."
Arnold, a member of the Leech Lake tribe who was raised on the reservation, said he and Matthew aim to set a positive example, particularly for younger generations.
"I grew up here. In growing up as a gay Native American youth, there weren't a lot of avenues, role models," he said. "I didn't know who to turn to ... I want to make a difference on something. I want to show the door's open, there's no more barriers, you're equal, and that our people are standing behind us."