Rep. Phil Lyman has a Democratic challenger for 2022: Diné woman and land protection advocate Davina Smith

Smith is the first Navajo woman to run for the Utah Legislature.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Davina Smith holds a campaign sign in Monument Valley at an event announcing she'll be running for the Utah House of Representatives. Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.

Monument Valley • When Davina Smith mounted her horse Oreo on Thursday afternoon, the sun was shining on the iconic, burnt red buttes of Monument Valley, but the wind chill hovered near freezing.

Smith, her father Roy and other members of her family joined her at the horse corral on the Navajo Nation where Smith’s umbilical cord was buried the day she was born. Then they rode to the Monument Valley Welcome Center.

With the Monument Valley and Bears Ears buttes as a backdrop, Smith — a Democrat — stood before a crowd of supporters and announced her candidacy for the Utah House of Representatives, making her the first Diné (Navajo) woman to run for the state Legislature in Utah’s 125-year history.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Davina Smith (left) and her father Roy Smith ride their horses to the Monument Valley Welcome Center on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.

“We were taught as Diné people,” Smith said, “our umbilical cords are buried as a baby by our mothers [in a place] where we know we will return. I have returned.”

The hourlong journey on horseback was connected to a longer journey, Smith explained, that she has been on throughout her careers in health care, education, economic development and advocacy work, including the campaigns to protect Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in southern Utah.

“Since I was a little girl,” she said, “I’ve experienced so many journeys in my life, whether they were traumatic, whether they were celebrations. But I took every journey with the mindset of, ‘What is it teaching me?’ … We have an ancestral historical past of resiliency.”

Smith acknowledged that uniting the newly reconfigured House District 69, which covers all of San Juan, Grand, Kane, Garfield and Wayne counties as well as parts of Emery County, might be a challenge.

The two massive and controversial national monuments in the district — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante — have been a flashpoint for local public lands debates long before they were slashed in size by former President Donald Trump in 2017 and restored to their original boundaries by President Joe Biden in October.

Smith’s likely opponent in the statehouse race next year, firebrand conservative Rep. Phil Lyman (R-Blanding), has been a vocal opponent of both monuments. Lyman was convicted of federal misdemeanor charges related to an ATV protest ride he helped organize on federal land in Recapture Canyon in 2014 when he was a San Juan County commissioner. He later spent 10 days in jail and was pardoned by Trump late last year.

Lyman won his current seat by a landslide in 2018, defeating Independent Marsha Holland with 67.5% of the vote.

But the Legislature developed new voting maps following the 2020 Census that make Lyman’s district less of a Republican stronghold.

“These last 10 years, Moab has been split into two different districts,” said Talin Hansen, the rural caucus chair for the Utah Democratic Party, “but now they’re not.”

Grand County, where Moab is located, is “the only safe Democratic rural county in the state,” Hansen said. San Juan County, which overlaps with the Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Ute reservation, is more of a swing district, he added, with its current county commission in Democratic control.

The two southeast Utah counties make up the majority of the population in House District 69. The district is still majority Republican, but Hansen believes a Democrat could win.

“It’s almost poetic,” he said, “having Phil Lyman have such a solid challenger from Navajo Nation going up against him in a district that he’s going to have to actually work to hold on to.”

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Charlaine Tso, whose district includes parts of San Juan County, said many Utah Navajos feel like their voices are not heard at the state level, adding she was “honored and humbled” to support Smith’s campaign.

“This is history that we are making,” Tso said, “The first Navajo, Diné woman and Native American to [run for] this seat.”

James Adakai, Smith’s uncle and former chairman of the San Juan County Democratic Party, called Smith’s campaign announcement “uplifting.”

“I know that we can do more to make the government better,” he said. “We can do more to see more representation, especially in the multicultural community which covers this district.”

Smith said she was looking forward to campaigning throughout southern Utah and hearing constituents’ concerns. “One of my upbringings is, ‘Listen with your heart and speak from your heart.’”

“We need rural communities to thrive,” she continued. “Here in my community, we still lack the support of roads, water, electricity, internet, programs for our youth, economic growth and development. I lived it. I’ve seen it.”

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Davina Smith stands near the Colorado River on August 15, 2019, with a medicine bundle of plants she gathered in Bears Ears National Monument. Smith ran 320 miles from the Bears Ears Buttes to Salt Lake City.

In the last several years, Smith, a long-distance runner, has completed two multiweek journeys on foot from southeast Utah to Salt Lake City, carrying traditional medicine bundles.

“I’m always running,” she said. “So now I’m going to run in this race.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.

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