How a Utah county silenced Native American voters — and how Navajos are fighting back

A series of lawsuits could help counteract decades of racist practices.

 

Homes on the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation south of Montezuma Creek sit amid the pumpjacks of the Aneth Field. Some revenue from oil development here goes to San Juan County, but residents still struggle to get county services.
Jonathan Thompson

To understand why Wilfred Jones wanted an ambulance, you have to understand where he lives. San Juan County, in southeastern Utah, is nearly as big as New Jersey but is home to fewer than 15,000 people. The lower third is part of the Navajo Nation and is almost entirely Ute and Navajo. The upper two-thirds are white and predominantly Mormon.

Jones, a 61-year-old grandfather with jet-black hair and a diamond stud in each ear, lives in the lower third, five miles south of the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Montezuma Creek. It’s rough, rocky country, where bullet holes riddle the road signs and lonely pumpjacks ply oil from the earth. The nearest services are in Blanding, some 40 miles north.

Sixteen years ago, when Jones joined the board of the Utah Navajo Health System, he realized his neighbors were dying because the closest ambulances — the county’s, in Blanding, and the tribe’s, in Kayenta, Arizona — were an hour away “on a good day.” So Jones asked the county commission if one of San Juan’s ambulances could be housed in a garage in Montezuma Creek. From there, it would take half the time to rush an elder suffering a heart attack to medical care.

But the county wasn’t interested. Over the next decade, Jones says, he and other health advocates repeatedly tried to get the commission to improve ambulance service on the reservation. But while the sole Navajo commissioner was supportive, the two white commissioners were usually not. (Former Navajo Commissioner Mark Maryboy and others corroborate Jones’ account, though no official votes appear in county records.)

Eventually, Jones gave up: The Utah Navajo Health System trained its own EMS volunteers, built a garage and bought ambulances with tribal and federal funds. It stung, but wasn’t surprising. Though Native Americans on the reservation don’t pay property taxes, they indirectly contribute millions of dollars in oil revenue and federal funds to the county each year, which is supposed to be returned in services like education and health care. But many Navajo requests — from building schools to implementing bicultural education to improving roads — have been denied by Anglo residents, who have always held a majority in elected offices despite comprising less than half of the county’s population.

Now, Native Americans could gain control of county government for the first time. Earlier this year, U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby ruled that San Juan County violated both the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution by relying on race to draw the boundaries of its voting districts. By engaging in “racial gerrymandering,” San Juan County systematically diluted the strength of the Native vote, keeping Natives out of power and skewing the makeup of the county commission and the school board. The system, perpetuated for decades, “offends basic democratic principles,” Shelby wrote.

 

Current San Juan County, Utah, voting districts, left, and what new districts might look like, based on a previous proposal from the Navajo Nation. (Borders are approximate.)
Sources: San Juan County and Salt Lake Tribune

In 1957, Utah became one of the last states in the nation to grant Native Americans the right to vote, doing so only after being forced by a federal judge. Still, it took another three decades for the first Native Americans to be elected in San Juan County. It wasn’t for lack of trying — county clerks kept Native candidates off the ballot, refused to register Native voters, and held written elections in English, disenfranchising those who were illiterate or didn’t speak the language.

In the mid-1980s, the U.S. Department of Justice sued San Juan County for violating the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voters by banning discriminatory voting practices. The county admitted fault, and agreed to implement bilingual voting and create three voting districts, one for each county commissioner seat. San Juan County was subsequently divided into three chunks. Districts 1 and 2 were in Anglo territory. District 3, on Navajo land, became known as the Indian District. In 1986, it elected Mark Maryboy as the county’s first-ever Navajo commissioner.

But though no one noticed at the time, the way the county drew its lines still violated the Voting Rights Act, because it packed minority voters into a single district while spreading the white vote over multiple districts. That meant Native voters could only elect one representative of their choice while white voters got two, even as the Native population surpassed the white population, 52 to 46 percent.

Sure enough, Navajos remained in the minority on every governing board. Maryboy was frequently outvoted. So were Navajos on the school board; three out of five of its voting districts are also on Anglo-dominated land.

Current County Commissioner Bruce Adams, who was elected in 2004, says allegations he and other elected officials ignored Native Americans’ needs are “100 percent false.” Yet as recently as 1995, the county denied that it was responsible for educating Navajo children; it built a high school in the town of Navajo Mountain only after yet another judge ordered it to do so. A U.S. Department of Justice official who later reviewed disparities in course offerings between the county’s white and Native schools said in 1997 that he “hadn’t seen anything so bad since the ’60s in the South.” Court-ordered injunctions to provide Navajo language and cultural education were abandoned. And as of 2011, Indian students, who comprised 48 percent of the county’s student population, received 80 percent of all disciplinary actions. Donna Deyhle, a professor of educational anthropology at the University of Utah, says that together these injustices lead to lower test scores, higher dropout rates and fewer college degrees, which in turn results in lower civic participation.

The inequality doesn’t stop at the classroom. Requests to bring running water or electricity to the Navajo community of Westwater were denied in 2007, because, one county commissioner argued, residents were too poor to pay for utilities anyway. Tribal members have never been appointed to judicial offices, and aren’t represented on cultural or historical boards. And many residents still erroneously believe that because Native Americans don’t pay property taxes, the county isn’t obligated to provide for them. According to court documents, Bruce Adams supporters boasted in a 2012 campaign ad that he “has been very successful in preventing the expenditure of San Juan County tax money on reservation projects for which the county has no responsibility.”

 

Mark Maryboy was elected in 1986 as the first Native American on the San Juan County Commission, after San Juan County admitted it had violated the Voting Rights Act.
Jon Kovash

Like most Navajos and Utes living in San Juan County, Wilfred Jones was unaware of the degree to which this was happening. He’d experienced racism in his own life — from police officers who threw his father’s sacred medicine pouch onto the highway, and from white kids who taunted his son and his grandson with racial slurs when they faced off at sporting events — but he wouldn’t have called it “institutionalized.” “We thought it was normal procedure,” Jones says, of voting in the county. “We went with the flow.”

Until, that is, Jones met Leonard Gorman. Gorman, who’s also Navajo, with a trim goatee and rectangular glasses, is executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission. In 2011, Gorman began visiting oft-ignored corners of Navajo Nation to learn about residents’ concerns. The stories he heard from Jones and others near Montezuma Creek seemed at first like another example of the disparities faced by Native Americans everywhere. But the more Gorman learned, the more he realized that this wasn’t just a lingering effect of generations of discrimination — it was discrimination in action.

“The struggles, the racism we all read about in history books … I’d like to believe that the overtness of what happened then isn’t happening today,” he says. “But in some places, it is.”

The most far-reaching example is also the least visible — which is perhaps why it escaped notice for so long. Under both the Voting Rights Act and Utah state law, counties must redraw voting districts at least every 10 years to ensure that the population is spread evenly across districts. But San Juan County hadn’t redrawn its voting districts since 1986. Gorman offered multiple times to help the county redraw its boundaries so that Tribal voters were more evenly distributed over two districts, rather than packed into one, but was turned away. County officials said they believed the Indian District wasn’t just legal — it was required.

When he heard this, Jones was outraged. If there had been two Navajos on the county commission, his pleas to get an ambulance might have been answered, and people could have suffered less. “That was what finally gave me backbone,” he says. So in 2012, Gorman sued twice — once to redraw the county commission districts and once for the school board’s. Jones was a plaintiff in both suits.

In December 2015 and February 2016, Judge Shelby ruled unequivocally in the Navajos’ favor. He ordered the county to remap both its school board and county commission voting districts. Commissioner Adams says the county is complying.

And while there’s no guarantee that having the Native American population spread over two voting districts will lead to two Navajo commissioners, it’s likely that, given a fair opportunity, a Navajo majority will elect Navajo candidates. If that happens, Native Americans could control the financial, law enforcement, education and transportation needs of one of the nation’s largest counties for the first time.

But given the county’s history, many Navajo remain skeptical that the new maps will adhere to the law. “We still have a long way to go,” says former Commissioner Maryboy. “But those recent court decisions look very positive for us. I think it’s inevitable that county officials are going to have to accept the fact that we’re part of the government.”

Correspondent Krista Langlois lives in Durango, Colorado. 

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