Utah Diné Bikéyah Board Chairman Willie Grayeyes, left, is seen riding horses at Bears Ears in Utah with Malcolm Lehi, then-council member from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. Photo: UDB

Native candidates claim majority on county commission in Utah

The non-Native hold on power in San Juan County, Utah, has finally come to an end.

Willie Grayeyes, a Democrat, won a seat on the county commission on Tuesday. According to preliminary results, he defeated Republican Kelly Laws by 169 votes.

That mean Grayeyes will be joining Democrat Kenneth Maryboy, who ran unopposed for his seat, as the other Native member of the commission. Both are citizens of the Navajo Nation and their wins mark the first time the county will more adequately reflect the Native majority population in the county.

It wasn't always that way. For decades, non-Native officials kept putting Native residents -- almost all of them Navajo -- in one district in the county, thus diluting their power.

The situation finally changed after the Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit. A federal judge concluded that the existing district map violated the voting rights of Native voters.

Though the county has appealed, it was forced to redraw the map before the November 6 election. As a result, two of the three districts hold a Native majority. Grayeyes and Maryboy now represent those districts.

Video footage courtesy Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition: President Trump Dismantles Bears Ears National Monument

The shift in power carries significant impacts. Grayeyes and Maryboy are strong supporters of the Bears Ears National Monument, which lies in their backyard and contains ancestral and sacred Navajo sites.

Grayeyes serves chairman of the Utah Diné Bikéyah, a grassroots Navajo organization that pushed for the designation of the monument.

Despite the significance to the Navajo people, President Donald Trump dramatically reduced the boundaries of the monument last December in a decision being contested in court. His administration and other Republican politicians had long cited opposition from the existing county commission as proof that Bears Ears did not have local backing.

Though Maryboy ran unopposed in the general election, he ousted Rebecca Benally, also Navajo, in the Democratic primary in June. She had appeared with Trump at the controversial event last year and testified to Congress earlier this year in support of the president's controversial decision.

Still, the election of Grayeyes and Maryboy does not come in time to change course in the voting rights case. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments in Denver, Colorado, next Wednesday.

According to the argument calendar, Navajo Nation . v. San Juan County will be heard by Judges Mary Beck Briscoe, Nancy L. Moritz and Allison H. Eid. The latter jurist is a recent Trump nominee who is the spouse of Troy Eid, a former federal prosecutor who is well known for his advocacy on Indian issues.

The population in San Juan County has long been 50 percent or more Native. The Utah portion of the Navajo Nation lies within county boundaries.

Read More on the Story
Grayeyes wins county seat in historic election (The Navajo Times November 8, 2018)
In San Juan County, it appears history has been made with a majority American Indian commission and conservative firebrand Phil Lyman wins a House seat (The Salt Lake Tribune November 7, 2018)
Native Americans Score Historic Wins in Midterms After Years of Efforts (The New York Times November 7, 2018)

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