Efforts to change the form of government in San Juan County brought cultural and political tensions to the fore last week, prompting accusations of racism. Former County Commissioner Mark Maryboy, whose brother Kenneth is a county commissioner, called some residents who support the change in county government “racist Mormons,” adding, “They are all probably a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”
Maryboy sits on the board of Utah Dine Bikeyah, a nonprofit organization he helped found to advocate for 1.9 million acres of the Bears Ears area to become a national monument. While the organization claims that “Bears Ears is healing,” the monument designation remains a divisive issue in the county.
KUER’s Kate Groetzinger spoke with Gavin Noyes, executive director of Utah Dine Bikeyah, about the cultural and political divide in San Juan County, the monument designation and the role the organization can play in helping San Juan County residents on either side of the issue find common ground.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kate Groetzinger: What is your reaction to what happened last week, including the comments Mark Maryboy made about some Mormon residents of the county?
Gavin Noyes: What we saw last week, I think, is a lot of built up tensions and misunderstandings and people who are not able to see across those differences and identify ways that everyone can agree the county can grow.
There’s always been a need, since we started this work, to begin bridging the cultural divide in San Juan County. The issue is that the white people live in the north, and the Native American people live in the south, and those are two different worlds that don’t interact.
KG: Why is that?
GN: Really, there’s a dynamic at play where the white community members are very vocal and open and share what they’re feeling and wanting. And the Native Americans are generally pretty quiet about how they feel with outside people.
What we’ve never seen is much of an interest from the non-Native citizens to really sit down and understand the needs and desires of the Native American half of the county. There’s very little understanding of, for example, why the Native community created Bears Ears.
KG: What can Utah Dine Bikeyah do going forward?
GN: I think people [in San Juan County] agree on 90 percent of everything, but the focus is on the differences and people not feeling heard or respected.
What I think is needed is individuals who have the trust and position to step in and ask all sides to stop personal threats and stop doing things that threaten the other side and just hold a space to listen. I have been talking with folks about their ability to go down and do that.
KG: Who have you asked? Who could do this?
GN: High officials from the LDS church and the Navajo Nation. I think our congressmen and senators and state senator down there might be able to show up and hold that space. I think it’s critical, and people need to give both sides a chance to be heard and see if there’s a pathway forward.
KG: Why have they refused in the past?
GN: I believe that it’s driven by fear on all sides and that some of the state-level politicians don’t see the benefit of putting themselves in a vulnerable position, where you’re going to be in the middle of meetings like the one last week. The opportunities here are not short term. This requires a long term investment in building trust.
KG: What is the extent of Utah Dine Bikeyah’s obligation to healing the divide in the county?
GN: Our priority is serving the Native communities in San Juan County, so we are committed to listening to those desires and facilitating positive change at the local level. And, personally, I don’t see a way to do that without crossing the political divide and building alliances between very powerful political entities that can then do the incredibly hard political work of finally investing in Native people in San Juan County.
This is really beyond the scope of what a San Juan County government can do. I think you need the state government and the federal government to address things like roads and infrastructure, bringing water to the people, passing the Utah Water Rights Settlement, electrifying homes, creating business opportunities.
These things are not something a nonprofit organization as small as ours can possibly take on. But what we can try to do is find partnerships and allies that are willing to take the risks to enter into this very challenging political dynamic and find small victories and ways of addressing these severe inequities that exist in San Juan County.
Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County.