Commentary: Legislators turn a deaf ear to Native voices

Public outcry should encourage more consideration be given to the voices of Native Americans.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Navajo DineŽ BikŽeyah member Willie Grayeyes speaks in opposition to HB136, sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, at left, which muzzles city and local officials from speaking out on public-lands protections during the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Standing Committee at the Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018.

After the Legislature’s call to rescind the Bears Ears National Monument led the Outdoor Retailer trade show to relocate to Colorado, one would think our representatives would handle future land decisions more carefully and listen to constituents. Including input from those who occupy these lands and consider them sacred is not only the right thing to do, it’s their job.

Fast forward to this year’s legislative session, and again lawmakers have ignored the voice of the people.

On Feb. 2, in a hearing before the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Standing Committee, Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, introduced HJR 1, urging Utah’s exemption from the Antiquities Act, an act which allows the president of the United States to protect certain lands by declaring them national monuments.

After the resolution was introduced, the committee asked if there were any members of the public in attendance that wished to comment. Multiple hands eagerly shot up in the audience.

One of those hands belonged to Navajo Nation representative Mizhone Mesa, who gave a compelling testimony criticizing Albrecht’s lack of communication with tribes. She called out legislators for not including her people in their attempts to exempt Utah from the act stating, “changing it without consulting them is wrong.”

Tensions increased as more testimonies poured in. An exchange between committee chair Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, and another Navajo Nation member especially turned heated, again over legislators discluding input from tribe members.

To make matters worse, Stratton asked if these tribe leaders even lived in Utah. Taking it as a failure to recognize them as a sovereign nation, the Navajo Nation member called the question offensive to her people. At that point, a Native American gentleman in the audience became unruly and started shouting at the committee which had him escorted out of the room for breaking decorum.

As if that wasn’t enough, four days later, in another legislative hearing, by the same committee no less, similar frustrations emerged. The bill sponsor, this time Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, presented HB136, Federal Designations, which would limit local officials’ ability to speak in favor of land designations. His hearing was exceptionally awful, requiring those speaking from the audience to do so under oath, an extremely rare procedure.

Rep. Sue Duckworth, D-Magna, clearly outraged by the move, called it “intimidating” and a form of “harassment.” However, her remarks didn’t sway the committee, which moved forward with Noel’s request to have members of the public sworn in.

After tribe members raised their right hands and took the oath, they were free to have their say. Yet again, the tribes’ people spoke to the lack of consideration their people were given over the land designation bill. Throughout the bill’s creation, not once had they been so much as contacted for input. Yet again, the committee paid them no mind and the bill passed 11-1.

Forget that Duckworth spoke out on the swearing in process but still voted in favor of HB136. Never mind the fact that Rep. Carl Albrecht referred to the Antiquities Act as the proverbial punting of a football, a tactic he himself is guilty of. It was the complete lack of compassion and understanding towards the opposing indigenous tribes’ testimonies that was utterly shameful. From the dismissive nature of the committees’ responses to the head-shaking of the county commissioners in the audience, the whole thing was disappointing to say the least.

In the end, HJR1 was passed by both houses of the Legislature. HB136 passed the House but was not taken up by the Senate before the session ended at midnight Thursday.

Unfortunately, HJR1 and HB136 are just recent examples in a long history of Utah legislators’ attempting to silence native voices. Public outcry should encourage more consideration be given to the voices of Native Americans, and the optimist in me says someday it will.

But, for now, I solemnly swear that I won’t hold my breath.

Kyle Garahara

Kyle Garahana is an intern for Alliance for a Better Utah.

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