One election winner this week: Bears Ears

Kenneth Maryboy won the Democratic nomination for San Juan County Commission. #NativeVote18 (Photo Utah Diné Bikéyah)

Mark Trahant

#NativeVote18 Roundup of Tuesday’s election news, including a missed runoff

A county commission race in Utah was a local referendum of sorts on the Trump administration’s actions to reduce the size of the Bears Ears National Monument.

Rebecca Benally, Navajo, had been an outspoken supporter of the Trump administration on the monument. As a San Juan County Commissioner she maintained that the county would do a better job of managing the area than the federal government. She told a House committee: “I believe we’ve done a great job to keep it a pristine area for decades and decades until someone noticed and wanted to have deep-pocketed interests take an interest in the area for self-serving needs.”

Benally’s position was about the opposite of the Navajo Nation as well as many grassroots groups in the area.

Kenneth Maryboy, Navajo, defeated Benally in the Democratic primary on Tuesday. The vote was 626 to 574. Maryboy is a board member for Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit with the mission to: “Preserve and protect the cultural and natural resources of ancestral Native American lands to benefit and bring healing to people and the Earth.” At the top of that list: Bears Ears.

Maryboy has long advocated for federal protection of Bears Ears and other sacred lands citing the theft of artifacts, and the prospect of creating a new model for regional sustainable economic development.

The most important thing about this election, however, is that it ends the Trump administration narrative about local support for their actions by Native Americans (at least at the government level). While the area tribes supported the previous monument standards, the Interior Department could turn to San Juan County Commissioner Benally for a more favorable response. That’s no more.

San Juan County has been a battleground over voting rights. A second seat on the commission is under litigation because officials removed a Navajo candidate from the ballot saying he was not a resident.

Meanwhile, votes are still being counted in Colorado for the Democratic Party's attorney general nomination. Joseph Salazar, Apache, trails the frontrunner, but there are more than 30,000 votes to count so the race is still too close to call.

A correction. Tuesday night I checked Oklahoma’s Secretary of State page at 3 am and then boarded an all day flight. When I looked it showed that Ashley McCraw was winning by a margin of 58 percent (and even more damning, said all precincts had reported in). But a day later when I checked in that margin had shrunk to 49 percent. McCray just missed. She will now face voters again in August.

Also in Oklahoma, Kevin Stitt, Cherokee, had a late night surge and won enough votes to enter the August runoff. The conservative business leader does not address tribal issues in his campaign site or in his biography.

This election season continues to be remarkable for #NativeVote18. Oklahoma was a good example of that: There are still four active Native American candidates running for Congress. Two Democrats and two Republicans, both incumbents.


Both the Republicans, Rep. Tom Cole, Chickasaw, and Rep. Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee, earned enough votes to avoid the runoff. And the two Democrats, Jason Nichols, Cherokee, and Amanda Douglas, Cherokee, will face votes again. But this late in the process to have four active candidates in one state says a lot about the potential ahead.

Nichols was the top vote getter in the first round and if he can do that again the 2nd district will feature two tribal citizens on both sides of the ballot, one a Democrat, and one a Republican, Mullin.

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Bill Keshlear
Bill Keshlear

A couple of points about the Democratic Party primary in San Juan County :

Because most voters mail in their ballot, counties do not count all votes on election night. Mail-in ballots postmarked on time and received after the election are not included in the election night preliminary results, but they are included in later releases. Provisional ballots are also reviewed during the two-week period following the election. The election is not over until all ballots have been counted.

Support by the Navajo Nation for Bears Ears National Monument has primarily been rhetorical and litigious, and that's consistent with how the tribe's leadership in Window Rock, Ariz., has allocated resources to Navajos living on the reservation in Utah. Inadequate public infrastructure is a direct result of Navajo Nation governance, which, ironically, Kenneth Maryboy testified to in 2009.

There are no "grassroots" organizations in Utah that support the monument, instead a rich and powerful alliance of prominent environmental groups, conservation-oriented foundations – several with assets in the billions – and outdoor-recreation companies have organized and administered a multimillion dollar, multiyear campaign to create and litigate Bears Ears. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Round River Conservation Studies, a nonprofit based in Salt Lake City, helped launch the southeastern Utah land-use initiative in 2010 and 2011. The foundation is worth $7 billion.

The only pro-monument nonprofit based in San Juan County is also the smallest, Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah. Here are some of the others. Utah Dine Bikeyah, Salt Lake City; Round River Conservation Studies, Salt Lake City; Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Salt Lake City, Moab, Utah, Washington, D.C; Conservation Lands Foundation, Durango, Colo.; and Grand Canyon Trust, Flagstaff, Ariz., Denver, Durango, Moab.

It's important to note that none of the directors, staff or donors of those organizations is accountable to people living in San Juan County whose livelihoods and lives might be affected by their decisions. Many cannot even vote in Utah. That's the crux of opposition to the monument.

Maryboy's Utah Dine Bikeyah, led by Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute tribal members, has revenues close to a $1 million, according to its 2016 IRS Form 990. That kind of money did not come from Native Americans living in one of the poorest counties in the country. It has aligned itself with companies that promote and profit handsomely from non-motorized outdoor recreation. They include some of the nation’s most prominent and politically aggressive: Patagonia, The North Face, REI Co-op, Black Diamond, Arc’teryx, Sage, OR, küat, Osprey, Yakima, Clif Bar and Mountain Hard Wear.

Some of their products and marketing efforts enable what many members of the Navajo Nation might consider desecration of sacred ancestral lands – biking, hiking, camping and rock climbing, all of which are heavily regulated on the reservation a few miles south of the BENM boundary. Rock climbing is even banned.

Maryboy was a supporter of the Grand Canyon Escalade project, which would've pumped as many as 10,000 tourists a day into the sacred confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. It was voted down by delegates to the Navajo Nation Council. Fact is, tourism promotes poverty-wage economies, overloads infrastructure, damages wildlife habitat, and threatens culture and heritage of communities caught up in what amounts to amenity-based colonialism.

Maryboy sits on the board of Utah Dine Bikeyah. There's been no indication he'll resign that spot should he win the commissioner seat – which would present a conflict of interest further inflaming tensions in the county and state.

Rebecca Benally has opposed the monument for many reasons. One of those reasons was that based on previous agreements with tribes in the Four Corners area, she didn't believe the federal government could be trusted to guarantee tribal access to ancestral lands where Navajo cultural and spiritual traditions are maintained.

(Benally supports Congressman John Curtis' HR 4532, which would put law enforcers on the ground to protect artifacts of early human habitation. President Obama's Bears Ears National Monument omitted this crucial element. Pro-monument supporters won't have anything to do with it.)

She allied herself with many Utah Republicans and President Trump on the issue and has been personally and publicly vilified, often by other Native Americans, because of it.

Virgil Johnson, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute and president of the Utah Tribal Leaders Association, referred to Benally as a “token” Navajo at a Jan. 23, 2018, public forum sponsored by the environmental group Utah Valley Earth Forum in Orem, Utah. He repeated a line of personal attack directed at Benally by Shawn Chapoose, co-chairman of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee, at a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., several weeks earlier. At a hearing in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24, 2016, Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif, also targeted her: “Saying that the Navajo Nation supports this land grab because one Navajo woman acting as a commissioner is like using her as a token spokesperson for her nation.” To which then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, replied: “There is absolutely no excuse for the degrading and disrespectful way in which Congressman Ruiz referenced Commissioner Benally. She in no way deserves to be called a ‘token,’ nor to have her legitimacy as an elected official questioned.”

Similarly, in a Facebook post dated Feb. 28, 2017, a commenter identified as Kenneth Maryboy, referred to fellow tribal members who are political opponents as “tame Indians.”

On Jan. 6, 2018, The Salt Lake Tribune published an op-ed by Garon Coriz, a Santo Domingo (N.M) Pueblo and physician living in Richfield, Utah, with a headline likely written by a Tribune editor that referred to anti-monument Navajos, including Benally, as “window dressing” in service of Trump’s agenda. “Ultimately, Benally and her clique are the hammer and chisel in the state’s efforts to chip away at tribal sovereignty. … In Indian Country, with the history of individual tribal members sometimes betraying their tribes for a handout or payoff, she has become a pariah.” Coriz resurrected “Uncle Tom” to fit his particular brand of bigotry. Among African Americans, there’s probably no insult more inflammatory.