Navajo Utah Commission discusses recent legislative session, internet broadband planning and grants

by David Boyle
News Director
Members of the Navajo Utah Commission received reports about the conclusion of the recent Utah State legislative session, internet broadband planning, and federal grants at their latest meeting.
At their March 14 meeting, members of the Navajo Utah Commission heard several reports about how House bill 40, which would have created a Utah Indian Child Welfare Act, did not pass as part of the 2023 Utah State legislative session.
The federal Indian Child Welfare Act went into effect in 1978 following passage by the US Congress. The bill was passed to address a higher-than-normal removal of Indian children from homes to be placed in foster care and adoption programs. At the time, more than one in three Indian children had been removed from their homes.
The 1978 bill gave tribal government jurisdiction over child placement on reservations and for children located off-reservation. Priority is given to placement in families and with tribal members to keep cultural heritage intact.
The US Supreme Court may be ending federal ICWA. The court heard Haaland v. Brackeen in November 2022. The case is a combination of several cases that challenges the act. With the possibility of the end of the federal act, tribal leaders across the nation have been advocating for state ICWA acts, including in Utah.
Sponsoring HB 40 is Utah Representative Christine Watkins (Republican) of District 67, with the bill sponsored on the Senate Floor by (R) Sen. David Hinkins of District 26, who represents San Juan County.
Speaking on the status of the bill was LaTonia B. Johnson, Assistant Attorney General in the Navajo Nation Department of Justice. Johnson reported that while Utah’s eight recognized tribes weighed in on three different versions of the bill, a fourth version of the bill introduced by (R) Rep Nelson Abbot of Utah County was submitted without consultation of the tribes and contained 19 amendments that Johnson said made the bill no longer in the best interest of the tribes.
“It was inconsistent with federal ICWA,” said Johnson. “It was our intent that the bill remain as much as how the federal ICWA bill was drafted including regulations and guidelines moving forward.”
Among the changes to the bill was to define extended family in a way that Johson reports is not consistent with how the Navajo Nation determines who is extended family. The amended definitions also only apply to children whose biological parents are both members of an Indian tribe.
Watkins reports that after passing out of committee and with a fiscal note attached, the state senate notified members of the house judicial committee that they did not like the substitute bill and wanted to go back to the original language. Watkins circled the bill on the house floor and the effort stalled out before the session ended.
Watkins and Johnson agree that the next step for Utah tribes is to wait and see the result of the Supreme Court’s hearing of the Haaland v Brackeen case expected in early summer.
Johnson summarized “We won’t know how to move forward until the US Supreme Court decides the case.”
At the NUC meeting, members also heard from Moroni Benally, Lobbyist Consultant for the Navajo Nation in Utah, as well Darrin Mann. Benally and Mann recapped their efforts, including work on the state ICWA bill which did not pass.
Benally also reported on the passage of a bill that extends the Utah legislature Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Task Force through November 2024. The bill also changes the name of the task force to the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Relatives Task Force.
The task force is aimed at understanding and proposing solutions for the epidemic of murdered and missing indigenous peoples.
Benally also reported work to secure funding for domestic violence response across the state, which will also provide resources for the Navajo Nation-owned Gentle IronHawk Domestic Violence Shelter in San Juan County.
An appropriations request from Hinkins for the proposed road between Navajo Mountain and Oljato did not go through. However, Mann reports that they did have fruitful conversations with the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, and made in-roads on how to seek funds in a future session.
At the meeting, Benally also reported on work on bills that passed such as HB 75, which places a sunset on some commemorative holidays in the state. Benally helped carve out exceptions in the bill for Indigenous People’s Day and Navajo Code Talker Day.
Benally also reported on efforts regarding a voter signature verification bill and a bill that increases criminal penalties for vandalism on public lands. 
At the meeting, members of the Navajo Utah Commission also heard from San Juan County Administrator Mack McDonald regarding a $50,000 Local Broadband Planning grant received by the county.
McDonald explained the county plan to use the funds to hire a consultant to help facilitate communication regarding broadband internet between the Navajo Nation, the county, the seven local chapters, and the state.
Part of the effort is to create plans to ensure middle-mile connection for broadband services for tribal residents on the Navajo Nation and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
McDonald explained that goal is to “reach out to both resources on the Navajo Nation and the state of Utah and try to make these two ties so we can paint that picture and develop what’s happening at the chapter level and then connect it.”
McDonald also reported on commission-supported efforts for the county to take over maintenance of roads on the Navajo Nation. McDonald reports that as other chapters follow an October Aneth Chapter resolution requesting county involvement, accompanying support from the San Juan County Commission will be brought forward to the Navajo Nation.
McDonald explained the county can maintain Bureau of Indian Affairs contracted routes and school bus routes on the Navajo Nation. The cost to maintain those routes is split 50/50 between the county and the BIA or NDOT.
Members of the commission also heard about a potential federal grant opportunity administered by the State of Utah.
Jamie Harvey, the Utah ICWA Administrator and San Juan County Commissioner, and Holly Frischknecht, Program Manager for the Utah Department of Health and Human Service, presented the two-year grant available to the eight federally recognized tribes in Utah, including the Navajo Nation and Ute Mountain Ute tribe.
Frischknecht explained that over two years, the tribes will have $125,000 to use for strengthening families.
“Whether it’s information that you want to spread about child welfare or family strengthening activities, it could be targeted towards parents and families who already have risk factors or to children and families that have already experienced neglect or abuse,” said Frischknecht.
“There’s a wide option of programs you can do based on what you feel is most needed within your own tribe.”
Frischknecht explained that up to 25 percent of the grant can be used for administrative costs with 75 percent or more available for the program. The state needs notice of tribal interest by May 1, with an application due by June 1.
There was some uncertainty about who could administer the grant for Utah Navajos. Navajo Utah Commission Executive Director Clarence Rockwell explained his two-person staff is likely not a good fit to administer the grant, but his office could help prepare the application for another entity, possibly Utah Navajo Health System, which already provides family health services in the county.
Members of the commission also heard an update on the Utah Chapters ARPA Project Submittals & Review Status, as well as an executive director report from Rockwell.

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