Commentary: Redistricting in San Juan County is about equity and fairness

The systems we have in place in San Juan County are unjust, unequal, and it is time they change.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) JoAnn Black reacts to opposition to redistricting proposals during a hearing in Monticello on Thursday. The redistricting proposals would redraw voting districts to ensure significant American Indian majorities in two of three County Commission districts and on four of five school board voting districts as the result of a January 2012 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by the Navajo Nation. The lawsuit seeks the redrawing of voting districts to reflect the 2010 U.S. Census. Last year, U. S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby ruled the voting districts in the sprawling southeastern Utah county, which today is home to 16,895 residents, are unconstitutional and violate the rights of American Indians. He ordered the county to redraw them.

The reason the Navajo Nation sued San Juan County to redraw voting districts is because lines were unconstitutionally drawn by San Juan County officials to discriminate against Native Americans’ right to a fair election.

Our County is 53 percent Native American, there are three County Commission seats, yet the commissioners have created one Native American district and two predominantly white districts by drawing boundaries along racial lines. Unsurprisingly, Native Americans have never held two County Commission seats despite being the majority population.

The real surprising thing is not that we lose these elections, but rather that the white people who wield control continue to insist (even this past week) that we should not enjoy the same government services as other Americans enjoy. They seem to believe it is our job to provide the very services they receive millions of dollars to provide us, as they sit on tens of millions of dollars of public money and say “no.”

It seems, that San Juan County officials believe that our poverty is not caused by their actions, but rather by our own culture.

To prove them wrong, as Utah Navajos we have sued San Juan County and State of Utah seven times in the past 30 years over discriminatory provision of government services and every single case has been decided in favor of Navajos. This one is no different.

The Aneth Chapter House members of my community are the poorest of the poor in the United States. Most of us are in need of running water and electricity in our homes. Our children drive hours to attend school, county commissioners and Navajo officials invite oil companies to exploit our lands and fund our county government, yet we do not receive the goods and services that other county residents enjoy. We feel taken advantage of.

Anglos in San Juan County on the other hand live in relative prosperity, enjoy public safety services, live free from pollution impacts, and have easy access to a wide range of county and state services that we as Native people also fund.

The systems we have in place in San Juan County are unjust, unequal, and it is time they change. We no longer want to live in a Third World environment, next to our privileged neighbors.

I invite the federal judge to choose an independently drawn boundary not determined by race which will be an improvement over the racially gerrymandered districts we are currently subject to. I think one of the draft voting district boundaries proposed by the Special Master to replace the current county commission districts, called Commission District Plan C, makes the most sense.

I believe that when voting district boundaries change, things will begin to improve. We will build roads, libraries, public safety, recreation facilities, and jobs within our communities, instead of only in the municipalities of Monticello and Blanding. We will hire Native Americans to government positions in equal proportions to whites to balance out the current inequity of more than 90 percent of the county jobs going to non-Native residents. We have very talented young professionals who are Native and we only seek fair treatment, which has proven itself to be an impossible goal without a shift in power.

I have been watching Apache County, Ariz., and McKinley County, N.M., which each has majority Navajo representation and they are doing an excellent job of ensuring equity and provision of government services across racial lines. I do not see the current San Juan County officials demonstrating this kind of fairness.

Bears Ears National Monument is a case in point. Every single Chapter House President in Utah and 98 percent of Utah Chapter House members who voted this fall support the monument, yet three county commissioners tell everyone that we are puppets of environmental groups, and should not be listened to.

The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission is doing a great job in soliciting fairness in voting districts on behalf of Utah Natives. It makes me sad when I hear people speaking against our own Native people’s right to fair elections. Discriminatory voting districts have been a fact of life for Native Americans in San Juan County since arrival of the Mormon pioneers, and it is time we entrust the Special Master and the federal judge to carry out their duty to draw fair boundaries.

It is up to us as Native American citizens (Ute, Paiute, and Navajo) to finally change the many forms of injustice here in San Juan County, which we need to do together along with the white half of the county. As Native Americans we have problems with roads, water, jobs, education and protection of our Native American heritage, and it is time we look to our own leaders to lead and create a stronger community here for everyone.

Wesley Jones

Wesley Jones is president of the Aneth Chapter House, San Juan County, Utah.