Tribe, Utah Diné debate trust fund

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, Feb. 12, 2009

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N ow that the state of Utah has bowed out of administering the $18 million Utah Navajo Trust Fund, Congress is grappling with the question of who gets to oversee the money.

President Joe Shirley Jr. testified before a U.S. House committee last summer that it should be the tribe.

At public hearings held at each of the seven Utah Navajo chapters last year, the top contender was the Utah Navajo Health System, which built three clinics with trust fund money in Navajo Mountain, Montezuma Creek and Halchita.

But a dissenting group of Utah Navajos calling themselves Descendants of K'aayelii say it's time at least some of the money reverted back to the people it was originally intended for: the 1,500 residents of the Aneth Extension, a 52,000-acre chunk of southeastern Utah that was added to the Navajo Reservation in 1933.

Meanwhile, an interim committee of three non-Navajos is administering the trust fund: the Utah attorney general, the Utah auditor general, and an appointee of Utah Gov. Jon Hunstman.

"The trust has never been in Navajo hands, it's not in Navajo hands now and we have no idea how long it will be before it's in Navajo hands," said Mark Maryboy, a Utah Navajo and former member of both the Navajo Nation Council and the San Juan (Utah) County Commission, who has dealt with issues surrounding the trust throughout his career.

"Talking with various members of Congress, we've heard (it will be) six months, 12 months, five years, 20 years before this is settled," he said.

While Maryboy has not been happy with the state's management of the trust - indeed, there's a class action suit against Utah for decades of alleged mismanagement - he fears things would only get worse for the Utah Diné if Shirley gets his way and Congress simply hands the money over to the tribe.

"Of the 88 members of the Navajo Nation Council, only two are from Utah," he pointed out. "All it would take is one resolution proposed by Young Jeff Tom (Mariano Lake/Smith Lake) and seconded by Ervin Keeswood (Tsé Daa' Kaan), and that money could be allocated to the council for a trip or something."

Almost as disastrous, in Maryboy's opinion, would be delegating the money to the Descendants of K'aayelii for use strictly in the Aneth Extension, where the 14 oil wells that produce the royalties are located.

"You can't just roll the clock back to 1933," he said. "There are already structures and entities in place that use that money throughout the seven (Utah) chapters. At a time when we all need to band together, it's unfortunate you have people like the K'aayeliis who want the whole enchilada."

But Justin Jones, attorney for the Descendants of K'aayelii - named for a Navajo chief who shielded his band from the Long Walk by leading them to the area that eventually became the Aneth Extension - said the group is no longer seeking "the whole enchilada."

"My clients' original plan was to set up a nonprofit corporation, which they have done, that would administer the trust," he said. "But the plan we recently submitted to Congress seeks only 37.5 percent of the 37.5 percent (of oil and gas royalties from the Extension that Congress designated to benefit Navajos).

"This marks a significant compromise on the part of my clients and proves that, in spite of what some have said about them, they are sympathetic to their fellow Utah Navajos," Jones said.

Denton Ben of the Descendants of K'aayelii said the group only wants what is rightfully theirs.

The 1933 law that established the trust specified that 37.5 percent of the oil revenues in the area go to benefit the Indian people in the then-most-recent annexation of the reservation, he pointed out.

It wasn't until 1968 that Congress passed a law sharing the money with the whole Utah Strip - without informing the K'aayeliis, according to Ben.

The residents of the Aneth Extension have always viewed the 1968 law as an unconstitutional taking, Ben pointed out. They sued the Utah Indian Affairs Commission, which then managed the trust, in 1969 and again in 1970, when the commission failed to heed a court order reverting the funds back to the Extension.

U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City again upheld the K'aayeliis' position, but in 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the ruling, saying that since the K'aayeliis had never been given any property, nothing had been taken from them.

An exasperated Justice William O. Douglas was the only dissenter, commenting in his opinion, "It is strange law indeed when the guardian (the United States) is allowed to do in the ward (the Indians) by depriving them of their equitable interest in oil royalties ... by reducing their share."

According to Jones, the nonprofit - the Descendants of K'aayelii Inc. - was not set up merely as a vehicle for the Aneth Extension residents to finally get their hands on the money they consider theirs.

"The main goal is to develop their area," he said. "The state hasn't done it, the tribe hasn't done it, and they think they can do it best themselves."

Even with just 37.5 percent of the 37.5 percent - which would amount to about $7 million based on the amount currently in the trust - the K'aayeliis could do a lot in their 15-by-12-mile area, according to Jones.

"They want to use that money as seed money to seek other grants," he said. "They're not looking for a handout."

Ben said the group envisions a scholarship fund, a retirement home for local elders and road improvements, for starters.

If the other Utah Navajos would get behind the plan, it would do a lot to alleviate the bad blood the trust fund has created between the Aneth Extension and the rest of the Utah Strip, Jones said.

"It's a real sore point," he said. "How would you like it if you had an oil well in your front yard, and the government came along and told you you had to share that money with a thousand other people? You'd be upset too."

While two sets of Utah Navajos and the tribe scramble for control of the trust, there are those who believe some of that money ought to be going across the border to Arizona.

As LeChee Chapter resident Nathan Kilgore pointed out in a previous interview, the Aneth Extension was granted to the tribe in exchange for a chunk of LeChee Chapter that was withdrawn for the city of Page, which was built to house workers for the Glen Canyon Dam.

"People in LeChee, who sacrificed their land, were never compensated for that," Kilgore said.

But Maryboy countered that Utah Navajos are already on the short end of the stick, as 62.5 percent of oil revenues from the Aneth Extension already go directly to the Navajo Nation, and outside the Extension, the tribe gets 100 percent of the royalties.

"We're in a no man's land out here," Maryboy said. "We have no friends in Utah, and we have no friends in Window Rock. In Joe Shirley's eight years as president, he's been out here maybe twice."

As of press time Wednesday, Shirley had not responded to a request for comment e-mailed early this week to his spokesman, George Hardeen.

Meanwhile, Maryboy said, the Utah Navajos bear the cost of oil drilling - bulldozed grazing land, springs fouled by oil and drilling chemicals, dust and noise.

And the oil companies, he said, still seem to prefer hiring bilagáanas instead of Navajo workers.

"That money was made on the backs of Utah Navajos," Maryboy said. "At least we should have our little 37.5 percent. But now the tribe is trying to take that too."

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