On a recent Sunday evening around dusk, Willie Grayeyes stood on a sagebrush and juniper-studded mesa, scanning the southeast Utah landscape. It was a place the Navajo Democrat’s family had lived for generations and where he’s hoping to be part of a political first.
“We’re on Paiute Mesa, San Juan County, Utah,” Grayeyes said. “This is the place where I was born.”
A collection of juniper branches, long turned gray, were arranged in a dome shape as shelter from the summer sun. Nearby, a collapsed wooden fence marked the place Grayeyes’ family kept its herd of sheep. It’s also where his umbilical cord is buried, he explained, an important rite in his Navajo culture.
“So you have ties with the earth there, plus your livelihood,” he said.
This fall Grayeyes is running as a Democrat for one of three county commissioner seats in San Juan County. The stakes for this year’s midterm are high. If Grayeyes is successful, his win will likely shift the power dynamic in the county from majority Republican to Democrat.
The race for county commission district 2 has become emblematic of gerrymandering, Native American sovereignty and the fight over public lands — including the heated dispute over shrinking Bears Ears National Monument.
In 2016 a federal judge ruled that San Juan County was racially gerrymandered and that the districts unfairly emphasized the voting power of white residents over Navajos.
That ruling gave Grayeyes hope that he could win. In this county that’s roughly split between Navajo and white residents, it could be the first time two Democratic Navajos are elected to the three-person County Commission.
But it’s been anything but easy for Grayeyes. Earlier this year he was kicked off the ballot after an opponent said he lived in Arizona, not Utah. Grayeyes’ community, called Navajo Mountain, sits almost exactly on the state line. To leave, one has to drive south into Arizona, then loop northward around canyons or Lake Powell. As a result, residents regularly go to Arizona for mail, groceries and to work.
In light of the disputes over his residency, Grayeyes gave a tour of his family home. It’s a two-bedroom manufactured home within the Utah state boundary, near his birthplace on Paiute Mesa.
“We don’t have any running water. We don’t have any power lines out here. Nothing,” he said. “Mainly it’s just a place to stay,”
His brother moved in last summer, and since then, Grayeyes said, he has alternated between the homes of his sister and his daughter, who both live in Utah. Recently filed court documents show Grayeyes has been a registered voter in San Juan County for 18 years. He maintains that the non-residency claim was just a ploy to get him out of the race.
A federal judge sided with Grayeyes, arguing that his removal from the ballot violated his constitutional rights, allowing him to re-enter the race. The judge said, however, the question of Grayeyes’ residency could be revisited after the election.
Neither the San Juan County clerk who removed Grayeyes from the ballot nor his current Republican opponent, Kelly Laws, responded to requests for comment for this story despite attempts to reach them by phone, email and certified mail.
Grayeyes, however, was happy to talk. He said the drama may work in his favor.
“That is a plus. Free advertisement for me,” he said.
Since returning to the ballot, Grayeyes has concentrated on the issues he sees facing the county. One is the Bear Ears National Monument. As board chairman of the advocacy group Utah Dine Bikeyah, Grayeyes was a major critic of the Trump Administration’s efforts to shrink the monument last December. He believes tourism through the original, expanded monument designation is the best option for economic development in the county.
But an even larger focus of his campaign platform is to improve services like road maintenance and Internet access on Utah’s Navajo reservation.
On a recent day, Grayeyes visited a place that embodies this issue for him. Driving outside the Navajo Mountain community, he stopped on a steep dirt road that winds downhill into a nearby canyon. The rusted-out skeleton of a car sat crumpled on the rocks several hundred feet below.
“Five students came off that cliff up on the corner; landed down there,” Grayeyes said. “Five young high school students.”
He said a simple guardrail could have prevented their deaths.
“San Juan County has the authority and responsibility to establish certain services. Particularly basic services. They have never done that,” he said.
San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman disagrees. Lyman, a Republican who is stepping down from the commission to run for a seat in the Utah legislature, says the Navajo Nation often refuses the county’s assistance.
“We’ve worked harder than anybody — at huge expense and sacrifice and effort — to try to put services on the San Juan County side of Navajo Nation,” he said. “We’re talking about a sovereign nation.”
Lyman points out that the county didn’t create the Navajo Nation, which extends far into Arizona and New Mexico. He says negotiating between the county and tribal governments can be messy.
“It’s not as black and white as ‘Hey, these roads are less improved than the roads off the reservation, therefore San Juan County must be racist,’” he said. “There are real challenges when you try to operate on the Navajo Nation.”
Grayeyes counters that the tribal jurisdiction argument is just an excuse.
“Well, if there’s a jurisdiction problem, address it,” he said. “Work with it. Put a rope around it and tame it and bring it over. Let’s saddle it.”
Only then, Grayeyes said, can officials help break down the barriers between the two sides.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.