Navajos win another battle in war for equality

  • G. Harvey, B. Whitehorse Jr., Daniel Harvey and Mark Maryboy

    Christopher Tomlinson

MONTEZUMA CREEK, Utah - In this hardscrabble corner of southeast Utah, where box-like government houses line the roads and Navajo hogans dot the dry dirt of the surrounding countryside, there's little evidence of the changes creeping into San Juan County.

That's because the changes started out of sight, in courtrooms and county offices. Now the effects of the changes are reaching the Indians who live in the south end of the county. For the first time, they can win election to county offices and demand the same services as the mainly Anglo residents in the north end of San Juan County.

In the most recent change, the Navajos have won the right to be judged by juries of their peers. That came from an out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit, which promises that Native Americans will be fairly represented on San Juan County juries beginning in 1997.

The landmark, class-action civil-rights suit filed against Utah judges in 1993 revealed that not one American Indian showed up on county jury-pool lists between 1932 and 1970. The state judicial council didn't admit wrongdoing in the settlement, but court officials agreed to develop a more representative pool of jurors.

Winning a right taken for granted by most Americans is a significant victory for the 6,800 Navajos who live mainly on Navajo reservation land in the southern end of San Juan County. They make up almost 54 percent of the county's population, but historically have had little political voice. Almost 90 percent of the San Juan County Indians receive public assistance. Over half don't have jobs and about 60 percent live without running water and electricity.

That is in stark contrast to the northern part of the county, where the mostly Mormon population in the tidy, green-lawned towns of Monticello and Blanding has prospered from ranching and mining. County funds here have helped build golf courses, museums, a community college, a recreation center and new schools.

Eric Swenson, a Monticello attorney who filed the jury-pool lawsuits as well as others on behalf of Indians in San Juan County, said pervasive racism has created institutional injustice in his county.

"There is a long history of voter discrimination here," Swenson said. "This is by no means the end of the litigation."

Swenson currently has five cases pending against the San Juan County school district. One - the current hot potato in the county - would force the district to build a school on Navajo Mountain, a settlement so remote in the west end of the county that youths now have to move away from home to attend school.

In 1978, a suit Swenson helped bring against the county resulted in the formation of voting districts so Navajos could win representation on the three-person county commission board. The suit also resulted in ballots being printed in Navajo and in Navajo interpreters being stationed at polling places.

Navajo Mark Maryboy was the first - and still is the only - Navajo elected to county office (HCN, 7/30/90). He won a county commission seat in the largely Navajo southern district in 1984. Last month, the Navajos won another victory when Roger Atcitty was chosen chairman of the San Juan County Democratic Party, the first American Indian to hold the chairmanship of any county political party in Utah.

During Maryboy's tenure on the county commission he has been able to draw the attention of the United Nations and the national Democratic Party to racial problems and governmental inequities in San Juan County. But he says he's frustrated by the slow pace of change.

A year ago, Maryboy funnelled his frustration into a suggestion that the county be cut in two. The other two commissioners took up the idea and hired University of Utah professors to study a division. Meetings on the proposal, while indicating it is probably too complicated to be feasible, have been effective in bringing long-simmering complaints out in the open.

"I think the process of studying the division has resulted in a healthy thing for both sides," said University of Utah economics professor Dan McCool. "This may result in answers to long-standing disputes."

San Juan County Commissioner Bill Redd agrees that talk of splitting the county has cracked open some issues; he doesn't agree that county inequities result from racism.

Redd, whose ancestors were part of the small band of Mormons who trundled their wagons into southeastern Utah in 1880, blames problems on murky laws that apply to counties containing sovereign territories, such as reservations.

Redd and fellow commissioner Ty Lewis have their own complaints: Law enforcement deputies don't have clear authority on the reservation, the county doesn't get reimbursed by the reservation for ambulances and fire trucks, and it has to provide services such as a health clinic because federal Indian agencies and the Navajo tribe have failed to do so. Jury duty notices are often ignored by residents on the reservation, the commissioners add.

They also say ill feelings arise from cultural misunderstandings. For example, a group of Navajos came to the county during the Persian Gulf War asking for $20,000 to pay for a medicine man ceremony for Navajo soldiers. They argued that the county should pay for this because the county pays to pave roads to Mormon churches.

"When you've been nurtured in one culture, it's hard to understand the other," Redd said.

For more information, contact Mark Maryboy, P.O. Box 190, Montezuma Creek, UT 84534, 801/651-3256, and the San Juan County Courthouse (for commissioners Bill Redd and Ty Lewis or other county officials), P.O. Box 338, Monticello, UT 84535, 801/587-3223.

Nancy Lofholm writes for the Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this news article is accompanied by a sidebar, "San Juan County, Utah."

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