Utah group aims to elevate Native issues in an unusual election


A view of Bears Ears, a sacred and historic tribal area in Utah. Photo by Tim Peterson

The 2016 election cycle is one of the strangest on record, as Mark Trahant frequently reports, and one group is trying to help ensure Native issues don't get ignored.

The Utah League of Native American Voters is hosting the first-ever Native issues forum next Wednesday as the November election quickly approaches. Representatives of several campaigns -- Republican and Democrat alike -- have committed to attending the non-partisan event.

"In Utah politics, tribes are often lumped in with public lands management issues or multicultural policy," organizer Moroni Benally, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, says. "Tribes have a unique political and legal relationship with the state and federal government and deserve to have their voices heard."

Tribes in the state also have committed to sending representatives to the Urban Indian Center in Salt Lake City on October 26 event. Along with community leaders, they plan to ask the campaigns about sovereignty, economic development and other issues.

Those kinds of issues aren't generally raised during campaigns in Utah even though the state is home to five tribes and a number of bands within those tribes. Native Americans represent just 1.5 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.


The Utah Native American Candidate Forum takes place October 26, 2016 at the Urban Indian Center in Salt Lake City.

But in this unusual year, the Ute Tribe has launched an unprecedented effort to defeat a Republican lawmaker who is trying to push a controversial public lands bill through Congress. A representative of Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) is expected to attend next week's forum.

The seat is considered safe Republican so the tribe's campaign isn't likely to significantly alter the race at this stage in the game. But in an equally unprecedented move, The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday endorsed Democrat Peter Clemens over Bishop.

H.R.5780, the Utah Public Lands Initiative Act, the paper's editorial board writes, "has fallen victim to a flawed process that gave county commissioners too much at the expense of Indian Tribes and environmental advocates."

"Maybe it's time for a healer," the editorial read, in reference to Clemens, who is a physician.

The editorial is a sign of the struggles facing Republicans in the state. Most have abandoned their party's nominee, Donald Trump, alarmed by his comments about women, minorities and others.

But that doesn't mean voters are flocking to Democrat Hillary Clinton. The climate surrounding the two major party candidates is so toxic that Evan McMullin, a Utahn who is running as an independent, is now leading the race in the Beehive State, according to a new poll from Emerson College.

Although Utah's Native population isn't as large as some of its neighbors, there are areas like San Juan County where Native Americans represent a majority or near-majority. But tribal members there have found it difficult to make their voices heard in a system long controlled by non-Indians. The Navajo Nation, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and several Navajo citizens are pursuing litigation to make it easier to vote and to ensure more adequate representation in the democratic process.

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