There is nothing in Utah history that prepares white people of San Juan County for an American Indian majority county commission setting their tax rates and deciding where to spend the money.
There is nothing in Utah history that prepares Indians in San Juan County for that, either.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby’s recent decision to create new commission boundaries and elections in San Juan County comes after a long legal fight by tribal members to make their votes count in county elections. It may very well produce two Indian commissioners on the three-member commission.
Nowhere in Utah since the arrival of Mormon pioneers 121 years ago has there been an Indian-majority county government. In fact, the white immigrants have dominated from the time of their arrival, and for much of that time they did so not just with the intent of controlling Indians. It was more like cultural extermination.
And nowhere has that played out more painfully than in Utah’s largest county. Despite a little more than half the population being Indian, white politicians always have called the shots, perpetuating the belief that only they can properly manage things.
Will it be different in San Juan County if it has two Indian commissioners? Sure. For starters, you’ll probably see more money spent south of Mexican Hat. Almost half the county population lives on the sprawling Navajo reservation, but a smaller part of county money gets spent there. The attitude in the white-dominated north has been that the Navajo tribe and the federal government take care of tribal members, but anyone who has traveled through the reservation can see plenty of opportunities for the county to improve the lives of its Indian citizens.
There is grumbling that reservation land does not produce property tax revenue, and therefore Indian county commissioners could be allocating other people’s property tax money while paying none of their own.
That’s true, but it’s not an argument for diminishing anyone’s voting rights, which is what the old commission boundaries did. We’re not back in the days when only property owners could vote, and those days shouldn’t return.
But it does point to challenges ahead. If at the end of this process it’s still just one side dominating the other, then the people of San Juan County will continue to be fractured. Both sides need to find common ground, and they won’t find much in past history to help them get there.