‘I’m sure it’s a culture shock for most of you’: Navajos take the majority on the San Juan County Commission

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Newly elected county officials are sworn in by Judge Lyon Hazleton. L-R Greg Adams, John David Nielson, Bruce Adams, Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes, at the San Juan County Courthouse in Monticello, Monday, Jan. 7, 2019.

Monticello • After a hard-won and historic victory that will shift the body from a long-standing white Republican majority to a Democratic and American Indian one, the new San Juan County Commission took the oath of office in a packed ceremony Monday.

The occasion was met with celebration from many in southeastern Utah who hope the change will improve conditions for the county’s majority American Indian population. But after a new legal dispute, it was also marred with a sense that the changing of the guard wouldn’t be allowed to stand without a fight.

“It’s very, very hard to accept changes,” newly inaugurated Commissioner Willie Grayeyes, a Navajo Democrat, told The Salt Lake Tribune in a recent interview. “[After] over two decades, maybe three decades, of the status quo, that’s what they’re used to.”

Grayeyes, one of two American Indians who now serve on the three-member County Commission, was booted from the ballot early in the race by county officials who said he couldn’t prove his Utah residency. He challenged the decision in court, and a federal judge reinstated his candidacy.

But days before the inauguration, Grayeyes’ opponent in the November election, Republican Kelly Laws, revived those allegations — asking the courts Thursday to annul the election and declare the seat vacant.

Grayeyes said he believes the ongoing dispute is a politically motivated effort to maintain the status quo and contends that he lives in the Navajo Mountain community on the Navajo Nation, which straddles the borders of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Because of the remoteness of the area, Navajo Mountain residents commonly travel to Arizona for routine errands and other activities, such as postal services.

But as the new commissioners stood before San Juan County residents and observers who’d packed the rectangular room in the county’s administration building to witness the historic moment, they appeared to present a united front.

“Navajo, Ute, Anglo, I think we foresee that we will do what we can for the people of San Juan County," said new Navajo Commissioner Ken Maryboy.

“I’m sure it’s a culture shock for most of you that we have two Native Americans sitting on the county seat, but nevertheless, we will do what we can to make better lives for those of you that reside in San Juan County and those of you that are affiliated with San Juan County,” he continued as part of a series of impromptu speeches after the ceremony.

Bruce Adams, the sole Republican left on the commission, told the crowd he was looking forward to working with the new commissioners and praised the presence of so many American Indians at the ceremony. Among the crowd was a diverse display of cowboy boots, traditional turquoise squash blossom necklaces, bright indigenous patterns and cowboy hats.

“Willie [Grayeyes] didn’t get the memo that we were going to wear black [cowboy] hats today," joked Adams. “I didn’t get the memo to wear my squash blossom. But we’re going to try to do our best to work together and make life better for the citizens of San Juan County, and I look forward to working with both of these gentlemen and welcome them to the county.”

Adams told The Tribune in a recent interview that he and others in the community are “fine with” the changes to the commission, which come after a federal judge ordered that the county conduct a special election under redrawn boundaries.

“We’ve had changes before,” he said. “I don’t see any difference this time.”

One Blanding resident, Charles Orvin, raised concerns that the court-ordered redistricting has unfairly changed the power dynamics.

“It’s basically gerrymandering,” he said.

Another Blanding resident, a Republican who asked not to be named for fear of community retribution, called the shift from a conservative majority “very scary.”

“I don’t believe Willie Grayeyes is a resident of the county or even the state,” she said, and noted that she doesn’t have much faith in the indigenous majority’s ability to listen to her interests.

Grayeyes said the past and present efforts to reduce indigenous power on the commission are rooted in concerns about the policy changes he and Maryboy might champion.

One area the two said they plan to prioritize, for example, is public services — including inadequate roads, sewers and other improvements in indigenous parts of the county.

“I would like, I guess, equal consideration for all people,” Grayeyes said.

“The major impact on our county is roads," Maryboy added. “Roads need to be maintained. And some students, they don’t go to school because of the conditions of the road. ... That’s one of the major concerns.”

Gavin Noyes, executive director of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit organization that supports indigenous communities in protecting their culturally significant ancestral lands, said it’s “hard to overestimate” the difference in services provided to the American Indian parts of the county versus the white ones.

“In the southern half of the county, there’s almost nothing,” he said, noting that most of the libraries, community centers, museums and pools are located in the white communities.

“You know, it rains and school buses can’t get kids to school because the roads are in such bad shape,” Noyes said. “There’s almost nothing that’s provisioned fairly. And that’s not to say that the old County Commission is to blame for that, but I’d say collectively we’re all to blame for that.”

While he acknowledged the county has limited funds, Maryboy also said he wants to take a look at the money it has lost through various lawsuits, including those trying to keep Grayeyes from the ballot.

“The major concern here is how do we replenish some of [the] funding?” he said.

The left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah nonprofit also criticized spending on litigation in a news release Monday.

“For too long, the extreme views of a handful of connected San Juan County politicians have been pursued at the expense of the rest of the county’s residents and finances,” said Chase Thomas, the alliance’s executive director. “While it’s important for local governments to stand up for their legal rights, doing so to simply send a message to the federal government or to defend illegal actions is not in the best interest of constituents.”

The shift in leadership, the group hoped, signals a “new and brighter future” for San Juan County.

While they identified public services as the major area that needs attention, Grayeyes and Maryboy also said they plan to examine public-lands policies, noting that there has long been a discrepancy between the way the County Commission views public lands versus the positions of San Juan’s majority American Indian populations.

Utah’s indigenous tribes, for example, filed lawsuits after President Donald Trump flew to Utah in December 2017 to jettison the boundaries of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, which contained sacred tribal land, to create five smaller monuments.

But in May, San Juan County sought to intervene in a lawsuit over the dismantling of Bears Ears, arguing it should be a party to the case because overturning Trump’s order to split the monument would hurt the region’s economy by tamping down mining, logging and grazing.

“You look at the county land plan that [the old commission] just passed and it’s all about mining and grazing and, you know, multiple use,” Noyes said. “And I think that the Native American view of the land is really different than that. It’s all about sustainably interacting with the land. Using it, but in a way that’s pretty light. Light on the landscape. It’s not about extraction."

Perhaps the biggest change that could come as a result of the new makeup of the County Commission isn’t even in policy, Grayeyes said, but in improved communications among indigenous peoples, governments and other stakeholders.

“Sometimes the county says, ‘We have no government-to-government relations between the Navajo Nation and the county,’ ” he said. “That’s what I’d like to see [change].”

Noyes also agreed that the shift is an important way to open much-needed dialogue.

“The Native half of the county and the white half of the county don’t talk,” he said. “And so they really don’t understand each other very well. And I think that prioritizing those conversations should be a really top priority.”

He said he’s sensing “a lot of fear” from some groups in the area to the changes in the commission. He hopes the shift will affect more than just policy and can also help address long-held attitudes and beliefs.

“There is some prejudice in the county where people somehow view the Native people as not. … I don’t know how to express it,” Noyes said. “But just not somehow … not having the same rights. And that really has to change.”