Sea change in the desert
(Editor’s note: The following article was written in collaboration with The Guardian as part of a nationwide project on Voting Rights Day, Aug. 6. The entire project can be viewed on theguardian.com)
What San Juan County, Utah, looks like depends on which direction you drive in from.
Driving south from Moab, the desert gives way to rolling piñon and juniper forest interspersed with farm fields and pastures. The two towns, Monticello and Blanding, are platted neatly on the “Mormon grid,” streets running exactly north-south and east-west, with equal-size blocks in between. The homes are modest but neat and well kept. Most of the people are white, descendants of Mormon pioneers who settled here in the late 19th Century. They mostly vote Republican.
Drive in from the south and you get a completely different picture. The topography is the spectacular red crags most people associate with southern Utah. Other than a couple of state and U.S. highways, the roads are meandering red clay paths that become impassable in the slightest rainstorm. The homes are dilapidated trailers. Nearly all the people are Native American, members of the Navajo Nation or the much smaller White Mesa Ute tribe. They are overwhelmingly Democrats.
There are many complex reasons for the disparity between the north and south of Utah’s largest (in area) county, but certainly one of them is the Native Americans’ historic lack of representation on the county commission. That wouldn’t change until 2018, when reforms were made that could affect the upcoming general election.
Although Native Americans hold a slight majority in the county, San Juan had never had a Native commissioner until 1983, when a consent decree from the U.S. Government forced the county to draw up voting districts for the commission seats (prior to that all the seats were at-large) to give Natives a better chance at being elected.
In a move known to voting rights activists as “packing,” the county created one overwhelmingly Native American district and two mostly white districts. In each succeeding year, the county had two white commissioners and one Navajo, which according to Mark Maryboy, the lone Native on the commission for many years, was almost as bad as having none.
“Every time I wanted a road improvement, a clinic, public safety, a library, a recreation center that would serve Navajos, it was a struggle,” Maryboy recalled in an interview with the Navajo Times last year (https://navajotimes.com/reznews/san-juan-countys-first-majority-navajo-commission-sworn-in/).
“I tell you, the commissioners I served with were not sympathetic. They did not want to serve the Navajo population.”
These voting districts were used for 35 years, in spite of three Census cycles showing the population of the county was growing and shifting. In 2011, after doing a study of possible gerrymandering, the manipulating of electoral districts, in the states that overlap the Navajo Nation, the Navajo Human Rights Commission and the tribe sued the county, stating that the districts were drawn based on race and violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.
The county contended that it couldn’t redraw the lines because they were part of a consent decree.
The district court ruled in favor of the Navajo Nation, ordering the county to come up with a remedial plan.
The county hired a consultant to redraw the district boundaries, but these were also thrown out by the court as race-based and unconstitutional. The court appointed a districting specialist from California as an impartial “special master” to draw up new districts that would ensure the Native majority equal representation.
The new districts were adopted just in time for the 2018 midterm elections. In January 2019, the county seated its first majority-Native commission, with Maryboy’s younger brother Kenneth and long-time environmental activist Willie Grayeyes taking the oath of office alongside Anglo commissioner Bruce Adams in a packed commission chamber.
Some white residents of San Juan county continued to look for ways to hold onto their waning power. There was talk of the north seceding and forming its own county. An initiative was floated to change the county’s form of government, and Grayeyes’ opponent unsuccessfully challenged his candidacy, claiming Grayeyes’ primary residence was outside the county. County Clerk John David Nielsen, who had conducted an investigation into Grayeyes’ residency, resigned shortly after the new commission took office.
Since then, reports Alastair Bitsóí, communications director for the grassroots advocacy group Utah Diné Bikeyah (“Utah Navajo Land”), the red dust has settled somewhat and San Juan County’s Anglo residents seem to be more accepting of their new leaders.
He credits, in part, the coronavirus.
“I think it’s a reminder that we’re all human and we all have the same basic needs,” Bitsóí opined. “People are starting to realize that the things the Navajos are asking for — good roads, clean water — are just basic things we all need to survive.”
Since both Maryboy and Grayeyes are former members of UDB’s governing board, the group has a ready ear when it advocates for a project in the Navajo part of the county. “It definitely takes less effort to influence the commission than it used to,” said Bitsóí, who is Navajo. “Both Ken and Willie grew up without electricity or running water, so they know what it’s like out there.”
The new commission also, of course, dropped the county’s appeals of the gerrymandering decision and did a 180 on the county’s previous position opposing the expansion of Bears Ears National Monument. It also agreed to reimburse the Navajo Nation for the $2.6 million in legal fees it racked up pressing the lawsuit.
Having a mostly Native commission, while a milestone, isn’t going to undo a century of systemic racism, Bitsóí acknowledged. But he’s feeling a underlying sea change when he talks to San Juan County residents, white and Navajo. It bodes well that voters countywide threw out the referendum on changing the county’s form of government, which Grayeyes and Maryboy had contended was a thinly veiled attempt to dilute their power.
“The change is at … maybe not quite a molecular level, but at least a human level,” Bitsóí said. “We’ve all been working in our little silos. I feel those silos falling apart.”