Oil drilling leaves holes for Navajos
BLUFF - In the wild desert terrain near Utah's southern border, Navajo dreams are as simple as a glass of fresh water.
Big changes seemed possible in 1956, when the first barrels of oil pumped from Navajo land carried an impressive promise: Royalties placed in a state trust fund would allow Utah Navajos to tap the best parts of the outside world. Electricity. Education. Commerce. Roads. Water.
Yet half a century later, as a lawsuit claiming the state mismanaged the trust drags on, the promise has been hollow for some. Harrison Johnson remembers when his grandmother's final resting place was dug up to make an oil company access road. Today, he grows impatient as he hauls in water for his family and livestock, saying the local springs his family once relied on aren't fit to drink anymore.
"When you make coffee . . . one hour later, you can see a little bit of grease on top," Johnson said. "So we don't even use local water for coffee."
He honored the wishes of his late father by taking his place in a class action lawsuit that claims the state allowed oil royalty money to be plundered between 1955 and 1990. For the past 15 years, Utah's Navajos have been asking the state to account for how the money was spent - or pay some $150 million back into the trust fund.
In January, a federal judge gave the case a nudge forward by ruling the state must account for how the funds were spent in those years.
"This is money our land earned." Salt Lake City civil rights attorney Brian Barnard makes the six-hour drive to southern Utah every so often to keep his clients informed about the lawsuit's progress.
At a meeting in Bluff last month, Navajos asked how much longer the lawsuit will take. The state, he says, is fighting hard and has refused to consider settling the case. Left to the courts, it's likely the dispute will take two to three years more to resolve, he said.
Each conversation is translated from English to Navajo for more than 30 people, young and old. The husband of one of the plaintiffs makes a frustrated overture.
"We need this resolved," said Albert Nez. "This is not welfare, this is money our land earned."
Back in Salt Lake City, assistant attorney general Phil Lott plans to appeal the judge's recent decision.
"Until we get to the point where we can determine the number of years the state may be responsible for and where the state may have responsibility to pay, it's impossible to . . . write a check and settle the case," he said. "It's not to be difficult or drag the case out, it's that the state is responsible to protect the taxpayers' money."
Community dreams: Susie Philemon, who is quick to speak up about the lawsuit, sees a different responsibility for Utah in a surplus budget year. She dreams about what more money in the trust fund could do. She would like to see a home for the oldest generation of Navajos, many of whom still depend on hauled water and whose health is failing.
Philemon, 45, bubbles over with anger when she thinks about a penny of trust fund money wasted.
"With all the resources we have, we shouldn't be living like our grandparents have lived," she said.
Her son, Elsha Black, is a 13-year-old in a black T-shirt with band logos and longish hair. He is initially soft-spoken when asked about the lawsuit, but his voice begins to tremble as he starts talking about a faceless "they."
"They know about it, but they don't care," he said.
As treasurer for the Aneth Chapter of the Navajo Nation, home of the Aneth oil fields, Jamie Harvey takes a more methodical approach. His family's well-cared-for hogan, or traditional eight-sided structure, stands next to a modern trailer and trampoline.
Most people want good water, yet bringing it to them when families still live far apart is expensive, he said. In Aneth, 15 percent of the population has water, while the waiting lists for electricity and water funded by the chapter are years long, he said.
The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority services a total of 914 customers on the Utah portion of the reservation. More than 9,000 Navajos live in San Juan County.
Many don't understand the mammoth hurdles to extending power and water, Harvey said. Archeological studies must be done. There are materials and construction costs. And then there are maintenance costs.
Each project must go through the Navajo Nation itself, which in the past has told Utah's Navajos to look to their trust fund for money.
Harvey, 32, graduated from the University of Utah and worked with state Medicaid clients for four years before returning home. One of his favorite places is the fifth floor archives of the U.'s Marriott Library, where many Navajo documents are kept.
He would like to see a public library his children and others could use.
"Hopefully, when they are all in high school we will have a public library and a beautiful park and a lot more things that I didn't have when I was growing up," he said. "That will be great. That's all we want, is progress."
'A better quality of life:' Former San Juan County Commissioner and Navajo Tribal Council member Mark Maryboy said any cash from the lawsuit would come at an opportune time. Utah chapters of the Navajo Nation are gaining independence from the central tribal government in Arizona, becoming certified to run their own leasing, permitting and land use planning.
"Once the chapters are certified, I think they will be strong enough to dictate their own future as far as free enterprise on the reservation," Maryboy said. "This time, the money is not going to be wasted. It will be put to good use to provide education and a good water system for the community and electricity. More educated people will have better income and quality of life."
Matthew Yellowman no longer lives on his family's land, saying there simply isn't much there. Standing next to the hogan where he was born, he recalls attending high school in Arizona. After his high school graduation in the 1970s, he helped organize activists who camped out at an oil rig, demanding better treatment of the Navajos, more jobs, better care of the environment and renegotiated oil leases.
He wants to see trust fund money spent on environmental cleanup. Describing a sign that declares Exxon Mobil a "proud part of the Navajo Nation," he recoils.
His mother, Helen, 76, remembers a different time as she looks across the land. Vegetation was so thick you could barely see the ground while grazing sheep, she says. A freshwater spring burst from the ground just yards from her family's hogan. Now the spot is a murky pool of water with an oil cap jutting from the ground.
She grasps a portion of a wiry, dried plant into her palm and crushes it. Now this is all the animals get, forcing them to roam far distances to find enough to eat, she said.
Her sons point out exposed black pipelines, some rotted or no longer in use. People come to gather the old pipe in an effort to make use of what's been left behind, said Yellowman.
He thinks progress is slow on the reservation in part because people have become accustomed to doing without for so long.
"The people think that this is enough for them," he said, "and it's not."
Matter of trust
l What is the Navajo Trust Fund? The only fund of its kind in the nation, it holds 37.5 percent of net oil royalties from the Aneth oil fields for the benefit of Navajos living in San Juan County. Remaining royalties go to Navajo Nation headquarters in Window Rock, Ariz.
l Who controls the money? Three trustees: chairman and state Treasurer Ed Alter; the state's Finance Division director, John Reidhead; Utah's public lands policy coordinator, Lynn Stevens. Administrator Tony Dayish has an office in Blanding.
l How is the money spent? Utah Navajo chapters are allocated money - usually about half a million each year - based on population for projects, such as new housing, health care or new wells. Representatives from the Utah chapters offer suggestions but have no power to allocate money.
"Our goal is not to spend more than our revenues are so that the trust fund is always increasing, even incrementally," Dayish said. Dayish often hears complaints that projects, which require tribal, federal and trust fund approvals, move slowly. "I try to educate people what the processes are and what needs to happen," he said.
Money allegedly misdirected
l The fund begins: Although the Navajo Trust Fund was created by a 1933 act of Congress, oil pumping did not begin until the 1950s. In 1959, lawmakers established a commission to oversee the return of oil royalties to Utah Navajos.
l Development: The nonprofit Utah Navajo Development Council (UNDC) was established in 1971 to help the state spend the trust fund. The for-profit Utah Navajo Industries followed to encourage Navajo projects and provide jobs for tribe members. Businesses included a lumber yard and a clothing shop.
l Scandal: A 1991 Utah legislative audit called for new trust fund management, citing poor business decisions and unethical behavior in the records they could find. Two years later, Arizona prosecutors indicted seven people, among them UNI officials, for misusing the money.
l Lawsuits: A class-action lawsuit filed in 1992 accused the state of shirking its duty to oversee how the money was spent. Initially dismissed, the suit was reinstated by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1996 and is still being litigated.
State attorneys want to appeal a recent ruling in favor of Utah Navajos. On April 27, a Utah federal judge will consider how much detail the state must provide in an accounting of funds spent in the past.