Navajos Push for Political Clout

An Indian-slate win in November could help tribe gain control over reservation's resources. UTAH: `IT'S OUR TURN'

LOUIS TAPAHA spends most of his time hunched over a desk, reading maps and computer printouts in a meeting house in Red Mesa, Utah. The 55-year-old Navajo was hired by his tribe to register voters living in the vast, dry county of southeastern Utah. Nearly every day, Tapaha's five helpers, along with numerous volunteers, travel the dusty roads from hogan to hogan, hoping to add a few more Democrats to the rolls.

If enough Navajos turn out to vote in the county elections in November, this corner of the state may never be the same.

Five Navajos and one Cherokee are seeking offices ranging from sheriff to commissioner in San Juan County, making theirs the first all-Indian ballot in the country. Their opponents are the incumbents, white Republicans. A Democratic victory could help the Native Americans gain control over the land and its extensive natural resources, including money from oil and gas royalties. They have named their campaign ``Niha shol zhiizh, `It's our turn.'''

``The more people who register on the reservation, the more attention will be given to the reservation,'' says Mr. Tapaha, who is also a tribal chapter president. ``The people who are in power now do not pay enough attention to the Navajo people.''

Although they live atop one of the richest oil fields in the country, Utah's Navajos are the poorest in the tribe, says Mark Maryboy, who is seeking reelection as the state's only Native American county commissioner.

Money flowing from the reserves goes into a trust fund managed by the state. The royalties, Commissioner Maryboy says, have been used to build airports, roads, schools, and a museum in nearby Blanding, Utah, largely for the benefit of Anglos off the reservation.

A 1989 study by a major accounting firm traced taxes and revenues from the reservation to the county and state from 1978 to 1988. The study found that reservation-related funds flowing to the state and county totaled $182 million over that period. Only $127 million returned to the Navajos in schools or other services.

Where the money goes

Maryboy, who as elected four years ago after the US Justice Department ordered San Juan County to redraw its district lines to allow representation from the predominantly Navajo tier of the district, estimates that San Juan County has spent only 5 percent of its total budget on Native Americans. Yet they make up just over 50 percent of its population. As a result, he says, the Aneth residents live without such services as drinking water, electricity, and adequate roads.

The five candidates say that if they win, they will improve living conditions on the 1.6 million-acre portion of the Navajo reservation that spills into Utah from Arizona. Currently, 75 percent of Utah's Navajos do not have drinking water or electricity, three times the average for reservation Indians. Ninety-five percent of the Navajos here cannot read, and unemployment rates are nearly triple those of the rest of the state.

But uprooting the conservative Mormon pillar in San Juan County won't be easy. Missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints first settled the region in 1879. Today, the county is roughly half Anglo and half Navajo, along with a small population of the Ute tribe. With 7,800 square miles, San Juan is the size of Connecticut but has a population of only 12,000, most of whom live in the towns of Blanding, Bluff, or Monticello.

Mormon, Republican officials have long dominated county politics. As recently as 1956, it was legal for county clerks to prohibit Indians from voting in Utah's state and county elections.

Candidate Julius Claw, who is running for county treasurer, never registered to vote until this year. ``I never thought it was important to vote. We're getting smarter. People are starting to be aware that there's millions of dollars in the county that comes off the reservation. We need to focus on getting some of that money.''

Joining Claw are Ruby Nakai for county clerk, Claudia Keith for county recorder, Dan Nakai for county assessor and Nelson Begay for sheriff.

``This is no man's land,'' says Maryboy of the Aneth strip, a 130-mile-long extension of the Navajo reservation. He says the strip is neglected by both the Utah county government and the Navajo tribal government, located hundreds of miles away in Window Rock, Ariz. About 6,000 Navajos live in Utah, representing only 3 percent of the total tribal population. Most Navajos live in Arizona.

The Native American candidates have made the demand for basic services part of their platform, and have convinced the state Democratic Party to adopt their resolution.

Democrats divided

Not all Democrats in the state support the Indian ballot. Salt Lake City's Democratic Party has contributed to the campaign, but the local San Juan County party has not. Bufaye Renolds, chairman of the local Democratic Party, says, ``It could pull the Democratic Party apart if we are taken over by Native Americans. Some people outside the party are calling it the Indian party. I do not.''

Former Commissioner Ken Bailey, who is a supporter of Maryboy, says the whites are uneasy: ``I'm sure people are upset. I think they feel threatened by a perceived loss of control.''

But Peter Billings Jr., who chairs the statewide party, says the Indian ballot is good for politics in the state: ``This is a familiar pattern with the Irish Catholics in the East and the blacks in the South. We're still a very heavily white community. Anything to add diversity is a good thing.''

Jean Melton, the Indians' campaign manager, speculates that most white Democrats in the county will vote Republican in November. Nevertheless, she says that since March, the number of registered Navajos has doubled to 2,800 and expects another 1,200 to sign up by November.

We're building a lot of rapid steam here. If we have an 80 percent turnout, we can win. And,'' she adds, ``even if we've made the Navajo voter turnout jump from 10 percent to 50 percent, that's a revolution.''

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