Virgil Johnson believes the Utah Division of Indian Affairs is “somewhat of a tokenism.”
It has only three employees. Its small budget, he said, gets eaten up by travel to the largely remote reservations in the state. And it’s housed under the Department of Heritage and Arts — which, for him, continues the stereotype that American Indians are historic relics rather than living people.
“That’s not enough,” said Johnson, a councilman for the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation. “It doesn’t give enough significance and importance to Native Americans in the state of Utah.”
So at the Capitol on Tuesday, Johnson joined other tribal leaders in lobbying for the division to be remade into a department. That would mean an appointed position on the governor’s Cabinet. And, Johnson hopes, it could be a chance for tribes to have more of a voice in state government.
The push for better representation comes three months after President Donald Trump downsized the Bears Ears National Monument against the wishes of the five Utah tribes that fought for the designation. Braidan Weeks, spokesman for Utah Diné Bikéyah, said the Cabinet proposal “can help forge our path of healing forward.”
“This is a nonpolitical issue, a nonpartisan issue,” he said. “This is to really elevate natives and native voices” on health care, education, transportation. And the position would be similar to what exists in nearby states, including New Mexico and Arizona.
In response, Paul Edwards, deputy chief of staff to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, promised that his office would look at ways to include more American Indian leaders in policy discussions.
“Whether that would be best accomplished through a Cabinet-level post or through participation in the governor’s senior staff,” he said, “Herbert recognizes that the significant issues related to Utah’s sovereign tribal nations would benefit from meaningful reorganization.”
That could come in the form of a standing legislative committee, suggested state Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray. He currently serves on the Native American Liaison Committee and plans to push for it to become a permanent fixture — that way the group could draft legislation and meet regularly.
Other House Democrats supported the idea. Rep. Susan Duckworth said American Indians “have not had the seat at the table when they’ve needed it.” Rep. Joel Briscoe praised the two proposals for “opening a new dialogue.”
Josh Loftin, though, isn’t sure a Cabinet-level position would change much. The spokesman for the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts said “from just an effectiveness standpoint, everything that [the tribes] want to do could be done under the current structure.”
He notes there’s a focus in the department on museums and libraries and culture and community which could cover just about anything. But the tribes say they want to improve roads and clean up uranium tailings — which would likely require much more than the Utah Division of Indian Affairs’ $328,000 annual budget and aren’t typical Heritage and Arts projects.
And tribal leaders currently only meet with the governor twice a year. They want more.
“I’ve been told that my people, native people, will one day blossom as a rose in the desert, but I question how that can be possible when at every turn we are relentlessly blocked,” said James Singer, co-founder of the Utah League of Native American Voters. “Being kept away from the decision-making processes is policy more befitting the 19th century than the 21st.”
The current setup in Utah is similar to the federal level where the Bureau of Indian Affairs falls under the Department of Interior. Virgil Johnson suggests that makes tribes “secondary.”
He believes a Cabinet-level position — preferably to be filled by the Utah Division of Indian Affairs’ current director, Shirlee Silversmith, a member of the Navajo Nation who has been the head since June 2011 — and a legislative committee focused on tribal concerns could change the dynamic.
“That would open up many doors that are now basically closed.”