I have to admit, my primary observation during much of my recent work trip to San Juan County was this: San Juan County, the sprawling and sparsely-populated rural county that takes up most of the Southeastern corner of our state, is stunningly beautiful.
I undertook this delightful (actually, somewhat sweaty) road trip, timed to coincide with the June 28 primary election, with my colleague Leah Farrell, ACLU of Utah staff attorney. Since the start of 2016, Leah has been pouring hours of time and tons of energy into the ACLU’s work on Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission v. San Juan County, et al.,an important voting rights lawsuit that touches upon two major strategic priorities for our organization: racial justice and participatory democracy.
Yes, San Juan County is beautiful. But it’s not exactly close to Salt Lake City, where our office is located. We had to spend nearly six hours in a rental car to get down to Bluff, Utah, which is just about 40 miles from the Arizona border.
The further south we traveled, down past the county seat of Monticello, through Blanding and into Bluff, the more strikingly picturesque the scenery became. Born and raised in Salt Lake, I had somehow never before been to this corner of my home state. If you love the sweeping vistas of the West, and you’ve not yet driven through the Valley of the Gods, you need to put this trip on your bucket list. It is incomparable.
The further south we traveled, the more brown faces we saw, too. The southern part of San Juan County is also the northern part of the sprawling Navajo Nation, which spreads into Colorado and New Mexico, with the bulk of the nation overlapping with Arizona.
As I barraged Leah with questions about Navajo law and Native citizenship - (“Are all the Navajo people who live in the part of the nation that is in Utah, Navajo AND Utahns?” Yes. “Could the Navajo people open a casino in Utah if they wished to?” No. “Do Navajo people have to obey all of the state’s laws when they are within the boundaries of the Navajo nation?” Yes. “Do I have to obey all of the state’s laws when we are within the boundaries of the Navajo nation?” Yes, Anna) - we experienced firsthand the immense distances between small pockets of community.
To get from the county seat of Monticello to our roadside motel in Bluff, we spent close to an hour in the car. From Bluff to the Navajo Nation Welcome Center in Oljato-Monument Valley, which also serves as a tribal chapter house for Navajo nation government gatherings and public meetings, it was another 45 minutes. From Monticello, where we observed an in-person polling place on the day of the primary election, to Montezuma Creek, where we observed another polling place, the drive was another 50 minutes.
I also experienced firsthand some of the immense distances between the white half of the population of San Juan County and the Navajo half of the population. Most Utahns, like me (before our involvement in this lawsuit, that is), have no idea that a full 50% of the population of San Juan County is Navajo. To us “northerners,” these fellow Utahns are pretty invisible outside the exhibits at the Natural History Museum.
In Monticello, the county seat, I saw only one Native person during our three different stops in town.
My first morning in Bluff, an otherwise-friendly white guy made a thoughtless racist joke about Native people stumbling to the store for beer in the morning…about two minutes into our conversation.
At a dinner stop near Mexican Hat, I walked past two novelty paper mache “Indians,” posed playing cards and drinking beer together across a small table in the lounge of a cowboy-themed motel.
More personally, I experienced the distance between myself and my fellow Utahns who also happen to be Navajo. I have long described myself as a “native Utahn, born and raised in Salt Lake City.” The first time that came out of my mouth in San Juan County, it sounded pretty silly.
My father was born on an airbase in Kansas and grew up in Idaho. My mother was born and raised in Northern California. I am a “first generation Utahn,” at best. This occurred to me when I met a local Navajo guy who was friends with the lodge staff (also on my first morning in Bluff, but thankfully not when the aforementioned white guy was working his comedy magic).
When I asked him if he was “from around here,” he laughed and said, “you could say that.”
The Navajo people migrated to the Four Corners area before there were any borders to make a “Utah,” “Colorado,” “New Mexico” or “Arizona.” The Navajo nation now spans – but also predates, by at least a couple hundred years – all of these states.
I returned to Salt Lake City thinking that the merits of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission v. San Juan County, et al, election lawsuit is best considered within the context of this long, deep historical reality.
The Navajo have lived in the American Southwest since at least 1300s, settling in southeastern Utah sometime in the 1600s. That’s a pretty good stretch of time before the great-great-great-great-great grandfather of this “Utah native” was born in 1817…in New York.
Probably only fair to make sure that the Navajo people, as arguably the most established voting bloc in Utah, have full access to the local polls, whatever it takes.
This unusually personal blog post is by Strategic Communications Manager Anna Brower; so are all the photos, too!