When the 2018 midterms came around, the residents of San Juan County and Navajo Nation were ready for a change. Or at least some were.
As of 2017, white folks made up 47 percent of San Juan County’s population while Native Americans, mainly the Diné (Navajo Nation), constituted 49 percent. Despite the near even split, the San Juan County Commission has historically been a comfortably white, Republican-dominated outfit, as the Diné had never held more than one of the three seats on the county commission. This was by design—a federal court judge ruled in December 2017 that the maps in San Juan County had been racially gerrymandered to keep the Diné from power and ordered they be redrawn.
With a fresh set of district maps that broke up the largely white, Republican city of Blanding, Willie Grayeyes, a member of the Diné and the Democratic Party, joined fellow Navajo Nation citizen and Democrat Ken Maryboy in November 2018 in historically flipping the racial and political makeup of the board. (Maryboy’s brother Mark was the first Navajo elected to to the commission back in 1988, per the Navajo Times.)
Ever since the county maps were redrawn, nearly every San Juan County member of the GOP has fought tooth and nail to strip the rightfully elected Diné representatives of their power. The latest push came on Tuesday, when Republican state Rep. Kim Coleman took the House floor to argue in favor of House Bill 93.
Put simply, HB93 is the latest attempt by non-Natives in Utah to keep the Indigenous population from power. The bill would allow Utah counties to split if a majority of voters were in favor of doing so. Coleman lives in Salt Lake County, but one of the bill’s main proponents, Rep. Phil Lyman of Blanding, sat on the San Juan County Commission from 2011 to 2018 before moving up to the state legislature. In effect, Lyman wants to turn back the clock to before the judge invalidated the racially gerrymandered maps.
Grayeyes’ place on the county commission was challenged before it even began. First, in the summer of 2018, Wendy Black, a resident of Blanding and GOP county commission candidate, had Grayeyes removed from the ballot, but was overruled by a federal judge. (If you want to read more on the messy legal fight that preceded the election, check out this feature from High Country News and BuzzFeed.) Then, another challenge came in December 2018, when his Republican opponent in the race, Kelly Laws, asked the courts to annul Grayeyes’ victory days before his inauguration.
The basis of these claims came down to residency. Grayeyes lives in the Navajo Mountain community, which is part of Navajo Nation, a reservation and sovereign nation that includes sections of Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. Due to the remoteness of his home region, Grayeyes and dozens of other Diné routinely travel to Arizona to send and receive mail or obtain a driver’s license. In the 1980s, he bought a trailer in Page, AZ so that his kids could obtain a K-12 education, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. As a 2014 study showed, tribal populations in Utah have routinely been neglected by local and state governments, be it on infrastructure like accessible roads or public education.
A 7th District judge vindicated Grayeyes on Jan. 30, per the Tribune, by ruling he’d not only lived and maintained residency in Utah, but actively participated in the American political process as a county resident. So, with the courts firmly on the side of the Navajo delegates, white Republican Utahans—but mainly those in Blanding—are now trying to crack the county in two.
Both Grayeyes and Maryboy spoke to Utah state House Democrats on Tuesday, explaining the dangerous roots of the bill. They were joined in their opposition by the leader of the most populous county in the state, with Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson telling Fox13 the bill was “political and nonsensical.”
It absolutely is. But as much as white people fearing Native Americans in power might be nonsense, it’s also a reality. And given the Republican trifecta in the state government, unless the non-Native Utah population magically breaks its centuries-long history of othering its Indigenous peoples, it’s a reality that’s going to live on for a long damn time.
Correction, 3:33 p.m. ET: The article initially stated that Jenny Wilson is the mayor of Salt Lake City. Wilson is the mayor of Salt Lake County.