Sometime next year, a federal judge will decide whether Native Americans are still being shut out of political power in Utah’s San Juan County, where more than 52 percent of the people are members of the Navajo or Ute Mountain Ute tribes.
The trial will be presided over by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby, the same judge who struck down Utah’s ban on same-sex marriages last December. At issue will be the Navajo Nation’s claim that local voting districts have essentially been gerrymandered to ensure a permanent white majority on both the county council and the school board. The Navajo Human Rights Commission has proposed new district boundaries that would give Indians a chance to win a majority of seats.
It may seem like just another skirmish in a dispute that has been going on for at least four decades. San Juan County in southeastern Utah is home to the mostly white towns of Blanding and Monticello, although the tiny tribal towns of Bluff, Montezuma Creek, Aneth and White Mesa lie to the south. As far back as 1972, the county was challenged in court, when Navajos accused county officials of making it almost impossible for tribal members to run for public office.
In 1983, the U.S. Justice Department forced the county to abandon its “at-large” voting districts because they had the effect of diluting the Indian vote. In 1997, locals considered the situation so hopeless that the county funded a study on the feasibility of splitting itself in two. The University of Utah’s study concluded that splitting the county would disproportionately harm Indian communities, which would be “economically crippled” by a lack of operating capital.
The current Navajo suit is typical of dozens that have been filed in recent years in Western states, often with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In a 2009 report, “Voting Rights in Indian Country,” the ACLU concluded that “courts have invariably found widespread patterns of discrimination against Indians in the political process.” In a case in Blaine County, Mont., a judge ruled that “racially polarized voting made it impossible for an American Indian to succeed in an at-large election.” In numerous cases, courts have also found discriminatory procedures for registering Indian voters as well as onerous identification requirements and a lack of help with minority languages. On top of this, an inordinate number of Indian voters were disenfranchised by criminal offenses.
Activists for Indian suffrage point to a long history of discrimination. In 1884, two decades after the Civil War “freed” blacks, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Indians are not citizens and therefore can’t vote. The 1887 Dawes Act declared that the nation’s goal was the “gradual extinction” of tribes and reservations, and that in order to vote, an Indian must leave the reservation and “adopt the habits of civilized life.”
Reform slowly followed, including President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1934 Indian Citizenship Act, and ultimately Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 Voting Rights Act, but tribes say a long period of “Jim Crow” enforcement ensued. As a result, some of the gains that have been achieved are distressingly fragile, and recent.
In Montezuma County, Colo., for example, Utes didn’t get the vote until 1970, and no Ute held county office until after a 1997 lawsuit. In Montana, Indians got the vote in 1975, and in the state’s Bighorn County, no Indian sat on the county commission until after a 1983 lawsuit. South Dakota Indians had no vote and could hold no office until after legal action in 1980. As recently as 2001, white defendants in a court challenge there justified themselves by arguing that “Indians don’t share the same interest in county government.”
Over the years, white opposition has been galvanized by such litigation, with some counties supported by the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation and “white rights” groups. In Utah’s San Juan County, where Navajos charge “racial animus,” white county officials have complained that Indians on sovereign tribal lands don’t pay property taxes, yet make use of law enforcement, fire protection, ambulances and health clinics. Yet when Indians were left off jury lists, the officials explained that Indians “ignore jury notices.” San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams says he’s “not convinced that anything is broken.”
Back in 1998, activist Ken Sleight, who had spent eight years working on Navajo voting rights in San Juan County, concluded that “the race issue remains (the county’s) deepest and most enduring problem.” Now, 16 years later, the Navajos still decry what they call the county’s “history of racial discrimination in school district programs and services” and cite a “singular lack of responsiveness to the particular needs of Indians.”
Jon Kovash is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndicated column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer and reporter in Moab.