THE RHETORIC OF RETRIBUTION, THE POLITICS OF PAYBACK … by Bill Keshlear

Political clout of newly empowered Navajo Democrats helps defeat a proposal to study change of San Juan County (Utah) government

A yard sign-style campaign message of the San Juan County Democratic Party on Highway 262 just inside the Aneth extension of the Navajo Nation was modified in advance of a special election on Nov. 5. The signs were positioned along highways in the southern part of the county. (Bill Keshlear)
A yard sign-style campaign message of the San Juan County Democratic Party on Highway 262 just inside the Aneth extension of the Navajo Nation was modified in advance of a special election on Nov. 5. The signs were positioned along highways in the southern part of the county. (Bill Keshlear)

Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

Thomas Jefferson to Richard Price, 1789

Many San Juan County, Utah, residents who voted in a special election on Nov. 5 were not informed – at least not well enough to test Thomas Jefferson’s optimism.

That’s understandable. The election was held against the backdrop of court-ordered administration and heavy-handed oversight. Voters had to penetrate a fog misinformation, charges of racism, unsubstantiated allegations of behind-the-scenes politicking of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, claims of possible electioneering by the county’s elections officer, and the hate-filled backlash of a Facebook prankster.

A full-court-press of a campaign by the San Juan County Democratic Party, its allies, and prominent Navajo Nation politicians won the day by 192 of 4,160 votes cast to kill the ostensibly non-partisan effort to change the way the county works.

The county Republican Party, on the other hand, put out a nuanced statement on Oct. 25 that was as much a plea for unity as it was support of the ballot question:

“As a Republican party, we support voter education and are in support of more representation for the county as a whole. We see Proposition 10 as a nonpartisan opportunity for growth in the county. Proposition 10 is a proposal to study the best representation for the entire county. We wholeheartedly support any effort that will unite the broader community as a whole to better meet all of our needs.”

Results broke along partisan and racial lines. Mostly Navajo and Democratic precincts voted overwhelmingly against the ballot question while mostly Anglo and Republican precincts voted for it. Liberals in Bluff’s Precinct 10 overwhelmingly voted against it, unlike other liberals up north. A pocket of San Juan County residents just south of Moab, Precinct 1, voted overwhelmingly for the proposition. They conceivably had much to gain if the proposition had been approved. It eventually could’ve led to creation of a district closer to them geographically (and philosophically) than the one in which they currently live.

Election results mirrored conversations such as these on social media:

Robin Albert-Benallie, a resident of Blanding and teacher who taught in public schools on the Navajo reservation for 30 years: “So now that Navajos are in power, will they use that power to dominate, like their predecessors, or share that power and work together with others in the county? If they are the people I know them to be, they will want harmony and read what the proposition says before they vote.

“This proposition is about studying the different kinds of county governments and seeing what would make it more compatible and democratic for all, giving each area representation in future elections – not only Navajos in the south end of the county but including people in Spanish Valley next to Moab.”

Naakai Hasteen, who intended to vote “no”: “Equal representation is all we’re asking.‬”

Albert-Benallie: “You have it now and Monticello does, but Blanding doesn’t since (the federal court) re-drew the border lines. There are really bad feelings here. I am in the middle of it looking for better answers.”

‬‬Hasteen: “Well if that is the case, how come no one told us at our respective chapter meetings?”

And in a separate conversation:

Chiniibah Jay, who intended to vote “no”: “We finally have a voice in the elections but someone is trying to take away that right. Let’s stand together and keep the Navajo majority vote.”

Albert-Benallie: “Actually, I went to a meeting to find out what was going on and it sounded really good.”

Jay:It sounds good to you, but if they have their way (and/or your way) it still takes away our majority rights. Isn’t that how it’s always been in this county? Now that a judge also ruled in favor of the Navajos to have more representation, the bilagáana (white people) are scrambling to find a way to get their power back.”

DEFEAT OF PROPOSITION 10 hinged on rhetoric of retribution and the politics of payback. An alternative story line similar to Albert-Benallie’s – charting a path toward better democracy – was a non-starter. Not one media outlet published a news account of ways other forms of government possibly could foster a structure in which each vote would count equally toward election results.

San Juan Record Editor Bill Boyle published opinion pieces by Blanding Mayor Joe B. Lyman, co-sponsor of the ballot question, and James Adakai, chair of the San Juan County Democratic Party. However, Adakai did not address the merits of changing the county’s form of government. He speculated instead on motivations. “Plain and simple, this is an attempt to get around the recent federal district court ruling that the former County Commission districts were drawn in a racially discriminatory manner.”

Obstacles to creation of an equitable representative democracy in San Juan could now be insurmountable because of the special election’s results and U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby’s December 2017 ruling in Navajo Nation vs. San Juan County, a landmark voting rights case.

Shelby – or more precisely, Shelby’s “special master,” Bernard Grofman, a University of California Irvine political scientist – gerrymandered the county to solve the problem of federally approved districts that had been allowed to devolve over the years to the extent that they prevented Navajos from a fair chance of winning seats on the county commission and school board.

(In The Salt Lake Tribune’s report of the 10th Circuit Court’s July 2019 decision that upheld Shelby’s ruling, Salt Lake City attorney Jesse Trentadue, who represented San Juan County in the case, argued that the county did not have the authority to substantially alter voting districts because of a 1984 consent decree under which commissioners were elected by district rather than at-large. Judge Nancy Moritz acknowledged that county officials may have “subjectively believed” they did not have the authority to alter district boundaries, but said those beliefs were based on a mistaken interpretation of the consent decree. “We relied very heavily on the county clerk,” County Commissioner Bruce Adams said of the districts the commission approved in 2011, “and it was our belief based on the information we got from [the clerk’s interpretation of the consent decree] that we could not change those districts.”)

Shelby and Grofman packed and stacked and sliced and diced, creating grotesquely apportioned county commission districts: Willie Grayeyes’ District 2 has a Native American population of 65 percent; Kenneth Maryboy’s District 3, 79 percent; and Bruce Adams’ District 1, 11 percent.

Ironically, liberal Anglos of Spanish Valley, an area of rapid population expansion in San Juan County just south of Moab, now find themselves locked into one of the most conservative county districts in Utah, Adams’ District 1. A group of them attended a county Democratic Party rally at the Mexican Water, Arizona, Navajo Nation chapter two days before the election and enthusiastically supported what in effect was their disenfranchisement.

They might take comfort in the fact that after 10 months in office, Maryboy and Grayeyes have adopted roles as proxy representatives of Spanish Valley. The two Navajo commissioners can override any initiative of Adams and have. They can meet with Grand County officials on San Juan business without Adams’ knowledge or consent and have. They can exclude Adams from any policy or employment decision, including hiring an interim county administrator, and have.

SPEAKERS AT THAT RALLY in Arizona represented a who’s who of San Juan County Democratic Party politics and current and former leaders of the Navajo Nation and Utah chapters.

List of Speakers Against Proposition #10

It was a well-organized love feast among the northern Navajo Nation’s political class as much as anything.

Parked on patches of sand outside the chapter house were newish and pricey 4x4s. Most drivers of those vehicles were not among the long-term unemployed or those suffering the ravages of the reservation’s diabetes pandemic or any of the other Third World social and economic dysfunctions endemic to life on the reservation.

File photo of Leonard Gorman, director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and one of the architects of Navajo Nation vs. San Juan County, a federal court case that upended San Juan County governance. Gorman raised the possibility of a lawsuit if Proposition 10 had passed, as did attorney Steven Boos, whose Durango, Colorado-based firm represented plaintiffs in the case. (Farmington Daily Times)
File photo of Leonard Gorman, director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and one of the architects of Navajo Nation vs. San Juan County, a federal court case that upended San Juan County governance. Gorman raised the possibility of a lawsuit if Proposition 10 had passed, as did attorney Steven Boos, whose Durango, Colorado-based firm represented plaintiffs in the case. (Farmington Daily Times)

Leonard Gorman, director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and one of the architects of Navajo Nation vs. San Juan County, weighed in against the proposition. Gorman raised the possibility of even more litigation had Proposition 10 passed.

Peterson Zah, former chairman of the Navajo Nation Council, spoke. Murry Lee, director of the Navajo Elections Administration, was on the agenda, as were Council Delegate Herman Daniels Jr. and Robert Whitehorse, former Council delegate.

Representatives of the Salt Lake City-based activist group Rural Utah Project attended, including its executive director and state party insider, TJ Ellerbeck. The rally was moderated by Davis Filfred, a former delegate to the Navajo Nation Council and current chair of the tribal-affiliated nonprofit based in Salt Lake City, Utah Diné Bikéyah. It was hosted by the Navajo Nation, according to Filfred.

County Democrats unabashedly played religion as well as race cards to energize party faithful, many of whom drove several hours to attend the rally. The whole ballot initiative was concocted to deny Navajos their rightful place in positions of power, several speakers said.

Grayeyes, who arguably won a seat on the commission because of Shelby’s ruling, said he could not figure out who was responsible for the ballot question but then suggested leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Mormon Republicans at the local, state, and even national levels could’ve played a role. Possibly even President Trump. Trump a Mormon? The partisan crowd chuckled. It was red-meat stuff.

Another Democrat speaking privately also raised questions related to involvement of the LDS Church. No one offered evidence – either related to the proposition’s creation or the subdued effort to pass it. It’s a well-worn trope among non-LDS Democrats, especially those who have faced the near-legendary political influence of Eagle Forum’s Gayle Ruzicka and her “phone tree.”

Benjamin Burr, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and currently a consultant on public lands issues, said that scenario was unlikely. The LDS Church would have nothing to gain by getting involved in a small county’s decision to change its form of government.

“I just think a few people are trying to cause contention,” said Albert-Benallie, the former public-school teacher, “and contention is not of me, sayeth the Lord.” (Book of Mormon, 3 Nephi 11:29-30)

Mark Maryboy, former San Juan County commissioner and currently a board member of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Utah Diné Bikéyah, said Mormons were “innately mean.” He linked the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre and the then-governance of Brigham Young, considered a prophet by many members of the LDS Church, to racial animosity unabated over the decades; that’s what drove creation of the ballot question.

“It boils down to racism against Navajos,” said Charlaine Tso, delegate of Utah chapters to the Navajo Council, who was quoted in a Navajo Times story, “as well as wanting to divide the county lines and adding more commissioners so the Navajo commissioners won’t have overall power to say-so.”

James Adakai, chair of the San Juan County Democratic Party, organized a successful campaign to kill Proposition 10. He said it was one several recent attempts to deny power to Navajos (Bill Keshlear).
James Adakai, chair of the San Juan County Democratic Party, organized a successful campaign to kill Proposition 10. He said it was one several recent attempts to deny power to Navajos (Bill Keshlear).

JAMES ADAKAI, CHAIR OF THE COUNTY DEMOCRATIC PARTY, distributed this partisan explainer in the days just before the election. It was worth a bit of fact-checking.

Adakai facebook post
Shouldn’t that be “TOP 11 REASONS…?”

1. Non-compliance with the Voting Rights Act? San Juan County’s political boundaries were drawn under supervision of the federal government in the mid-1980s. The reason? In order to comply with the Voting Rights Act. Citizen groups, whose membership included Grayeyes, participated in drawing the new boundaries. In 2011, the county modified several precinct lines but not enough to compensate for demographic changes over a 30-year period and ensure Navajos had a fair chance at winning elections. As a result of the ruling in Navajo Nation vs. San Juan County, county governance was upended. Federal Judge Shelby tipped the scales in the opposite direction, virtually guaranteeing a Navajo majority on the commission.

2. Unfair for whom? Any changes in county governance would’ve been decided by a countywide vote after a series of public hearings. It was just as likely that passage of Proposition 10 and approval of voters at the next stage would’ve cemented electoral gains made as a result of last year’s election as undo those results. Supporters of the ballot question said it was unfair that residents of the county’s largest population center, including Navajos, had been disenfranchised. The ballot question offered an opportunity to balance the scales.

3. Threats of litigation? The response of Adakai and his allies to any challenge seems to be litigation or a threat of litigation.

“Frankly, my colleagues and I have been researching legal issues that will need to be pursued if the referendum passes,” said Steven Boos, whose law firm in Durango, Colorado, represented the Navajo Nation in the landmark voting rights lawsuit. “We don’t want to come into it completely cold.”

The comments were not solicited but volunteered by Boos as part of an email back and forth about a disturbing slide he has used in PowerPoint presentations to document what he believes is continuing racism in the county (The episode is described in detail below).

The litigation-first strategy undercuts representative democracy. Instead of resolving political disagreements through cultivating relationships or at the ballot box, county officials now must factor in opponents’ financial ability to access the court system and their own budgets.

Any eventual change brought about in good faith through Proposition 10 across ideological and partisan lines could’ve fostered a sense of electoral fairness among all county residents – a crucial ingredient in bridging San Juan’s monumental cultural and political divide and successful governance.

4. Representation? Proposition 10 would’ve opened the door to public discussions on improving county government. Adakai and his party’s campaign to defeat the ballot question played a prominent role in closing that door. An advisory committee would’ve studied options and reported back to San Juan residents at hearings across the county, and they could’ve voted on them.

Results of the special election offered evidence of Adakai’s claim that his party, in fact, represents a solid enough bloc of Navajos to win countywide elections. A clearer indication awaits next year’s general election when a full slate of candidates will be on the ballot, including the president of the United States.

5. Discriminatory? Adakai and his allies continually play the race card. It’s their primary rhetorical tool.

In April, a group of San Juan residents filed to begin the laborious process to put a referendum on the ballot. It would’ve nullified a resolution passed by commissioners in support of an expanded version of Bears Ears National Monument.

The reaction of Adakai to even the possibility of a referendum was visceral and reflexive. “Comments at the April 16 meeting suggest that some white citizens of the county should have the right to submit a host of issues to referendum elections, rather than learn to work with the Navajo majority on the commission,” wrote Adakai in a letter published by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Canyon Echo, which at the time was edited by Zak Podmore, currently the Trib’s San Juan correspondent based in Bluff. “This is flatly racist.”

Shanon Brooks, president of Monticello College, responded: “Apparently, Adakai assumes that anyone who disagrees with him is a racist.”

6. Disruptive to county governance? Although he didn’t describe attempts to unseat Maryboy and Grayeyes, Adakai’s political rhetoric often confuses what he might believe are race-based motivations with aggressive (sometimes very aggressive) and justifiable criticism. Democracy is messy. It thrives because citizens rise up every now and then and say, “Hey, we’re in charge here.”

The two commissioners have continually ignored many of their constituents’ concerns. For example, shortly after taking office, Kenneth Maryboy said he wasn’t required to answer any question from anybody, and he publicly smeared constituent Kim Henderson, who was elected to the Monticello City Council on Nov. 5, by implying her motivations were racist after asking a simple process question.

He referred to some attendees at a commissioner meeting on April 16 as members of a “peanut gallery.”

Maryboy and Grayeyes failed to comply with open-meetings law though warned they violated notification provisions of the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act.

Grayeyes’ response? “The law can be contested.”

They dodged rulings of the State Archives Committee in four cases related to requests for public records under Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA.

In one of those cases, petitioner Bill Keshlear (me) sought voluntary mediation. However, the two commissioners were no-shows at a meeting scheduled at a time and place for their convenience – a Utah Association of Counties convention held in Provo. They never offered an explanation for their absence.

During proceedings leading to the Committee’s ruling, Boos told county officials in a letter dated April 4 that he had advised Maryboy and Grayeyes “to not provide such private, privileged correspondence to the County, nor will I provide copies of such correspondence” sought under GRAMA. The Committee ruled unanimously that the records belonged to the government, not Maryboy, Grayeyes, or Boos.

He told Kelly Pehrson, county administrator at the time, and John David Nielson, county clerk, they possibly had grounds to counter-sue the petitioners for harassment if they took the case to state district court in an attempt to force the commissioners to abide by the Committee’s decision. Petitioners considered it a threat. Here’s an overview of that case.

The county lost another GRAMA-related case in which Boos played a role on Nov. 14 when the Committee ordered an independent audit of phone calls, emails, text messages, and letters of Maryboy. It was related to a request for records filed by Pehrson.

Kelly Pehrson, former San Juan County administrator, testifies before the State Records Committee in Salt Lake City. He’s trying to clear his name. (Bill Keshlear)
Kelly Pehrson, former San Juan County administrator, testifies before the State Records Committee in Salt Lake City. He’s trying to clear his name. (Bill Keshlear)

The complaint is based on quotes in a May 1 news article written by Podmore, edited by Dan Harrie, and published in the Tribune, as well as a press release written by Adakai:

  • Maryboy said that he had been “emailing (Pehrson), and (Pehrson) didn’t do what (Pehrson) was being told.”
  • Boos echoed Maryboy’s assessment: “And the chairman (of the county commission Maryboy) has sent a number of memos asking Mr. Pehrson to provide updates (on the assignments). Those reports weren’t provided.”
  • In a press release from Commissioner Maryboy and James Adakai, chair of the San Juan County Democratic Party, Adakai said, “Mr. Pehrson had not been willing to take direction from the new County Commission and execute its priorities, and his abrupt resignation was not earth-shaking news.”
  • In the same press release, Maryboy goes on to say, “If Pehrson had not resigned we would have taken disciplinary action.”

Pehrson wants to see records that document his alleged insubordination. He believes they don’t exist, which might explain why David Everitt, the interim county administrator who handled Pehrson’s request, found nothing in an initial search ordered by the Committee. No memos of the kind Boos alluded to. No complaints or accounts of disciplinary or pending disciplinary action filed with Walter Bird, San Juan human relations director, that would’ve likely preceded Pehrson’s firing. Nothing.

The Committee ordered the county to take a second look because Everitt only examined Pehrson’s records, not Maryboy’s.

Based on results of a process begun by Pehrson to clear his name, one reasonable conclusion at this point is that Maryboy – aided by Boos, Adakai, and possibly others – made up the whole thing. We’ll know more in a couple of weeks.

No reporter or editor from the Tribune appeared at Pehrson’s hearing to gather information for a follow-up to its story in May that published so far unconfirmed information and tarnished the former county administrator’s reputation.

7. Electioneering? Nielson, San Juan elections officer, distributed a letter to the editor written by co-sponsor of Proposition 10 Lyman at early voting sites three weeks or so before the election. The incident made headlines and influenced media coverage.

“It was meant to be informative,” said Nielson, who was quoted in The Salt Lake Tribune. “There were questions [from voters] about ‘why did this happen?’ I don’t know how to explain it other than have the person who started it [Lyman] show his point of view. The idea that this could be swaying [voters] never crossed my mind.”

Nielson did not respond to my requests for an interview.

8. Navajo language? In February 2018, the Navajo Human Rights Commission and seven members of the Navajo Nation and San Juan County settled a lawsuit involving the county’s adoption of a mail-in ballot process in 2014 and closure of polling places as a result.

Despite what Adakai seems to suggest, the consent agreement approved by U.S. District Judge Jill Parish did not require ballots to be printed in Navajo. Instead, Navajo language ballots and election information were available in audio form online, at in-person voter assistance offices on the reservation, and polling places. A flier with election information uploaded to the county website and distributed to Navajo chapters was required to be written in English.

This anti-Proposition 10 mailer was sent out by the San Juan Democratic Party. It was written in English Only.
This anti-Proposition 10 mailer was sent out by the San Juan Democratic Party. It was written in English Only.

(The agreement tacitly acknowledges that Navajo is basically a spoken language. Many Navajo-only speakers could not have read their mail-in ballots even if printed in Navajo. To overcome that language barrier, the Navajo Utah Commission and the Navajo Nation Election Administration were required by the consent agreement to identify competent Navajo interpreters who could then be hired by the county to orally translate from English into Navajo election information.)

Other actions required of the county included three polling places on the Navajo reservation; in-person voting assistance; Navajo liaisons, language assistance, and interpreters; election notification information online and on the radio and newspaper; and data collection for post-election analysis of election administration.

There’s nothing to indicate San Juan failed to comply substantively and in good faith with terms of the consent agreement in administering the Nov. 5 election, although Nikki Venugopal, voting rights coordinator for Utah ACLU, said, “We’re reviewing how the election was carried out and see how we can ensure issues get addressed before the next election.” She was quoted in the Moab Sun News.

During the messy run-up to the 2018 settlement, San Juan counter-sued in defense of its process adopted for the 2014 election cycle and beyond. Its counterclaim said the percentage of registered voters casting ballots doubled compared to the previous election when vote by mail was not an option. The U.S. Department of Justice, representing the Navajo Nation, reviewed county procedures in October 2015 and expressed no concerns, according to San Juan’s version of events.

The counterclaim also said the county had adopted additional plans for 2016 and future elections that included four in-person voting locations, three of them on the Navajo reservation, and Navajo language ballots in audio form at all four locations and on the county’s website.

The settlement “basically agreed to continue to do what (the county) has been doing all along,” according to the county’s attorney Trentadue, who was quoted in a Salt Lake Tribune report by Pamela Manson.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers in the landmark voting rights case, Navajo Nation vs. San Juan County, raised allegations last year similar to ones raised by Adakai – complaints related to election administration.

They attempted to make the case that the county had done little to implement the redrawn boundaries for voting districts or to update its precinct lists as ordered by Judge Shelby in December 2017.

As many as 2,000 voters, they said, mostly those living on the Navajo reservation, did not receive ballots or had incorrect ones for the June 2018 countywide primary, the first under the ruling.

Shelby gave plaintiffs, who were represented by Boos, a tongue-lashing. The account written by the Trib’s Courtney Tanner called it “blistering criticism.”

Plaintiffs misrepresented the breadth of the problem when they attempted to reopen the case, Shelby said, misusing the court’s time. They should have communicated directly with the county to resolve the issue, he said. They misled the clerk, who spent days before the primary working on legal responses when he “undoubtably had better things to be doing.”

Trentadue argued that Boos and his clients didn’t take into account the difficulty of placing residents into new precincts when many who live on the reservation rely on post-office boxes – spread into Colorado and Arizona – and don’t have precise street addresses.

There were errors, but Trentadue said they weren’t racially motivated and were resolved as quickly as they were brought up. He said the problems affected about 80 voters, not the 2,000 cited by Boos – or 1 percent of the 8,000 registered voters in San Juan. Shelby agreed.

“The county has convinced me that it has undertaken energetic and reasonable efforts to enforce the order,” Shelby said. “I’m not aware of a single voter that raised an issue that was not promptly corrected by the county.”

9. Support? See No. 4.

10. Transparency? Blanding mayor Lyman, a co-sponsor of the ballot question, has addressed the so-called motivation issue: He said his constituents had been disenfranchised by Shelby’s ruling. See No. 2.

A ruling in federal court split Blanding and its outskirts into three San Juan County Commission districts. As a result, the county’s largest city has no designated representative on the commission. The two Navajo commissioners, who form a majority voting bloc, live miles away and do not conduct anything resembling constituent outreach in town.
A ruling in federal court split Blanding and its outskirts into three San Juan County Commission districts. As a result, the county’s largest city has no designated representative on the commission. The two Navajo commissioners, who form a majority voting bloc, live miles away and do not conduct anything resembling constituent outreach in town.

Final decisions would’ve been placed in the hands of voters, not a “self-appointed committee.” The ability of county residents to determine the kind of government they’d prefer to live under is a fundamental right, and the process to change it has been outlined by the Utah Legislature. Neither Utah law or the state’s constitution requires petitioners meet motivational purity tests. The process is open to cynical power seekers, good-government advocates, and anyone in-between – including Navajos who live in Utah.

11. Healing? Adakai and his allies wield a two-edged rhetorical sword: kumbaya for supporters but enmity for political opponents.

A panel discussion held by Utah Diné Bikéyah last year at the University of Utah offered a candid glimpse inside the uplifting nature of indigenous traditionalism and its radical downside.

There was talk of healing. An inspirational video showed members of several tribes, historical enemies, coming together for unity moments on a run across the high desert to Bears Ears. Schwag was engraved “Bears Ears is Healing.”

The limits of kumbaya: Schwag at a pre-election rally held in Arizona included fly swatters that say, "Swat down tyrant takeover" and includes the website address of Salt Lake City-based Utah Diné Bikéyah. (Bill Keshlear)
The limits of kumbaya: Schwag at a pre-election rally held in Arizona included fly swatters that say, “Swat down tyrant takeover” and includes the website address of Salt Lake City-based Utah Diné Bikéyah. (Bill Keshlear)

However, kumbaya has its limits. Activists on the panel discussed among other things their strategy to “undermine the Trump administration,” in the words of panelist Keala Carter, a public lands specialist with Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, and “re-indigenize” the region, according to Honor Keeler, assistant director of Utah Diné Bikéyah, whose board members moderated the Democratic Party rally in Arizona two days before the special election in San Juan County.

You need revolution before healing, said Carter. Moderator Angelo Baca, a graduate student at New York University and staff member of Utah Diné Bikéyah, echoed that sentiment toward the end of a movie produced and released last year by public television station KUED in Salt Lake City.

Utah Diné Bikéyah board member Mark Maryboy, mentioned above, spoke in August at a town-hall style meeting at the Mexican Water chapter of the Navajo Nation – site of the rally two days before the special election.

After listening to a recording of it, I think his words were among the most venomous I’ve ever heard from a speaker in a public forum. It left several of Maryboy’s critics shaken.

His opening comments critical of oil and gas drilling were not surprising. He had said it all before. Then, after a few minutes, Maryboy launched into an unprovoked broadside targeting a small group of Anglos and Navajos that came down from San Juan County.

Maryboy’s comments seemed unrehearsed, straight from the gut. They were not only racist and religiously bigoted, but sexist and misogynistic as well. Maryboy not only targeted Anglos in the group, but Navajos as well. Much of his rant was in Navajo, specifically attacking fellow tribal members, including an Elder in her 90s.

PERHAPS THE MOST DISTURBING ASPECT of the campaign leading up to November’s election was the photograph, below, of a PowerPoint slide used by Boos, the Durango, Colorado-based personal attorney of Maryboy and Grayeyes and a prominent attorney working for plaintiffs in the Navajo Nation vs. San Juan County case.

The photo was circulated across social media platforms several weeks before the election.

Boos embedded a screen grab of a Facebook post into his PowerPoint presentation as evidence of what the slide says is “basic racism” of San Juan County. His public presentation comprises 77 slides. The final one says, “July 16, 2019 – 10th Circuit enters Opinion upholding the District Court ‘in all respects’ ” … “Wendy Black, et al. begin efforts to revise form of government in San Juan County.”

Attorney Steven Boos uses this PowerPoint slide in public presentations.
Attorney Steven Boos uses this PowerPoint slide in public presentations.
The person identified in the Facebook post as the author, a retired nurse living in the Midwest, vehemently denies writing it. I blocked out her name to preserve her anonymity because she’s received numerous hate messages from Utahns since it began circulating in October.
The person identified in the Facebook post as the author, a retired nurse living in the Midwest, vehemently denies writing it. I blocked out her name to preserve her anonymity because she’s received numerous hate messages from Utahns since it began circulating in October.

Several Anglo residents of San Juan deeply engaged in civic affairs living in the northern part of the county expressed disgust when they saw the photo, insisting the slide with the embedded screen grab grossly misrepresented their sentiments and relationships toward Native Americans. The impact the photo had on the special election, if any, is anybody’s guess.

The screen grab supposedly identifies the author as a woman with a common last name of Anglos living in San Juan.

However, strong evidence suggests that whomever wrote the racist tirade is not the woman identified (I blocked out the name to preserve her anonymity). Somebody likely hacked into her Facebook account, wrote the racist rant, and posted it to a private group called “Blanding’s 24/7 Yard Sale” with 10,000 members. Although short-lived on Facebook, it was up long enough to raise a bit of havoc.

Boos repeatedly has used the identity of a retired nurse living in the Midwest in his presentations and was not suspicious the account had possibly been compromised. He said the screen grab of the posting first appeared several years ago and doesn’t recall how he obtained it.

The retired nurse said she’s not from Utah; has no friends or relatives in Utah; and has only been in Utah to change planes at the airport. The image of a woman in the screen grab looks nothing like her. She said she’s been inundated with hate messages from people she doesn’t know and had no idea why.

I asked if she could tell me something about herself:

We are just regular working people. I’d prefer our names not be used,” she said. “I grew up in (the Midwest), graduated from (a large university there) in 1981 with a bachelor’s in nursing.

I’ve lived in (the Midwest) from 1978 to 1982) when my husband got a job in the (South). In May 1983 when we moved back to (the Midwest) and have lived in (a prominent city) ever since.

I am retired from (a prominent health care system) after 36 years as an RN. I am currently working per diem in the same health system. Neither my husband or myself have ever been to Arizona. We passed through the Salt Lake City airport with a small layover there on our way to Hawaii for our 25th wedding anniversary, but never left the airport.

We have no family or friends living in either state. I am registered to vote in (a county in the Midwest). I generally don’t vote by party, but I’m a more middle of the road Republican. My husband and myself are small business owners and have been in a variety of businesses since 1984.

I can tell you that the racist post did not have a photo of me. It was someone else from what I could see.”

I suggested she might’ve been caught up in Boos’ attempt to bolster support for his voting rights case and particularly nasty county politics because of her last name, which is a common name among San Juan County Anglos. There was an election coming up, I said, and the photo of the slide might’ve been used in an attempt to influence results.

The photo of Boos’ slide was flagged by several people when it popped up on their Facebook feed:

FB message thread1
FB message thread 2
FB message thread 3
FB message thread 4

Boos responded in a series of emails over a five-day period regarding use of the slide in his presentations.

“It’s useful in my presentations, as are the Facebook comments following the decision in Laws v. Grayeyes, to show the context of the redistricting case and that racism in the County is not merely a thing of the remote past.” … “Insofar as the meaning of the slide, it would be absurdly simplistic to conclude that ‘it accurately characterizes the degree of racism that exists in San Juan County.’ The slide, at best, is one piece of that puzzle, that needs to be considered along with a great deal of other evidence, such as the FB comments denigrating Navajo cultural beliefs that came forth in the wake of the decision in Laws v. Grayeyes.”

The lawyer said he would “give thought to the future use of the slide” but drew no conclusion regarding authorship.

I asked Boos in the Nov. 1 email, “If you met (the victim of the Facebook hack) in person, what would you tell her?”

He said, “I’m not sure I’d have anything to ‘tell’ (the victim of the Facebook hack), but I would have some questions, such as who had access to her FB password in early 2015. The answer to that question would allow you to narrow the range of people who might have actually posted the slide. Have you asked those questions?”

(Keshlear is a regular contributor to the Canyon Country Zephyr.)

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