Navajo Utah Commission sets priorities
by David Boyle
Members of the Navajo Utah Commission (NUC) spent much of their meetings in January discussing priorities for the 2022 Utah State Legislative session.
At their January 11 meeting, members of the Navajo Utah Commission – made up of elected Chapter Presidents and Navajo Nation Council representatives of Utah Navajos – passed a resolution identifying eight priorities for the 45-day Utah legislative session, which convened on January 18 and adjourns on March 4.
The resolution identified priorities that include health, education, transportation, Westwater utility projects, Gentle Ironhawk shelter appropriations, enactment of Utah equal law, state-tribal consultation, and any 2022 Utah Native American legislative bills.
In addition to their identification of issues to address, the commission also requested the Navajo Nation hire a lobbyist to help address those issues at the 45-day Utah legislative session.
After receiving some requests for proposals, the Navajo Nation hired Moroni Benally as a lobbyist during the state legislative session. Benally grew up on the Navajo Nation and now lives in Salt Lake City, where he works as a policy public consultant for Restoring Ancestral Winds, a nonprofit that supports healing in indigenous communities in part by advocating for indigenous victims of sexual and domestic violence.
One of the priorities identified by the Navajo Utah Commission is funding for the Gentle Ironhawk Shelter.
The domestic violence shelter, located in Blanding, re-opened in the fall of 2021 following a closure of several years.
During its closure, law enforcement referrals and other women and children in need would be taken to Moab for services. If the Moab facility were full, families were taken as far as Richfield, nearly five hours away from the Blanding shelter.
The Gentle Ironhawk Shelter and the land it sits on are owned by the Navajo Nation, but a recent agreement with the tribe and Utah Navajo Health Systems (UNHS) allowed the shelter to re-open.
At their January 11 meeting, the commission heard from Mike Jensen, CEO of UNHS regarding the re-opening of the shelter.
Giving a snapshot of the use of the facility, Jensen shared that in December they served more than 30 patients, including adult women and their children under age 18.
The facility had 327 bed nights in December, which counts each night any person stays at the shelter.
Jensen says the shelter is striving to provide the best experience to help these women get back on their feet, back into the communities where they live, and back into their families if it is a safe space for them to go.
UNHS and the Navajo Nation signed a three-year lease that allows the health company to operate the facility. Ahead of re-opening, Jensen said the facility security was upgraded and also received new appliances, paint, landscaping, and a yard and playground for children to play.
Jensen says the shelter is integrated with other UNHS services, including counseling, medical, and dental, with transportation to and from appointments provided by UNHS. The shelter also has computer workstations with internet connection to help the women plan for their future.
While the facility currently operates at a financial loss, UNHS seeks grant funding to reach break-even.
Funding for the shelter is identified as one of the eight legislative priorities of the NUC, as well as the subject of a resolution passed at the commission’s special meeting on January 21.
At the January 11 meeting, Jensen was optimistic that they will receive needed funding as he said the state has been a great partner so far, helping provide grants to start the facility and to help with initial renovations.
NUC Executive Director Clarence Rockwell reports that Benally is working to secure funds for the Gentle Ironhawk shelter through the Utah Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee
Another Utah legislative session priority identified by the NUC is transportation. Rockwell reports that one project that has been a focus for the past few years is a proposed road between Oljato and Navajo Mountain.
State Senator David Hinkins (R) of Ferron represents San Juan County and is reportedly looking for funds for the project by working with UDOT to see if ARPA funds are available for an Environmental Impact Study for the road.
Another priority identified by the commission are the bills that address Native American issues.
At their January 11 meeting, the commission heard an update from James Toledo of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, which is an office of the Utah Department of Cultural & Community Engagement.
Toledo outlined two bills of interest to Indigenous communities in Utah, including House Bill 30 Student Tribal Regalia Use Amendments.
In 2021, an Indigenous graduate from a Cedar City high school was not allowed to wear tribal regalia to the graduation ceremony.
HB 30 states Utah education agencies may not prohibit students who are enrolled or are eligible to be enrolled as a member of a tribe from wearing tribal regalia during a high school graduation ceremony.
At the meeting, San Juan School Superintendent Ron Nielson said they encourage all students to come to graduations representing their culture and heritage.
“We have a very high percentage of Native American students who are adorning traditional dress and may even include beadwork on their caps,” said Nielson. “That has been deemed appropriate for a number of years now and even encouraged.”
The Navajo Utah Commission passed a resolution expressing support for HB 30. The bill is sponsored by Representative Angela Romero (D) of Salt Lake City.
As of press deadline, the bill had passed through the House and had a favorable recommendation from a Senate Committee and now awaits a vote from the State Senate.
Another bill of interest identified by the Utah Division of Indian Affairs is Senate Bill 28.
The bill creates the Office of American Indian-Alaska Native Affairs within the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, creating a director of the Office of American Indian-Alaska Native Affairs, an Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) liaison, and an American Indian-Alaska Native health liaison.
SB 28 also received a resolution of support from the NUC. The bill is sponsored by Senator Jani Iwamoto (D) of Salt Lake City. As of the press deadline, the bill was awaiting a hearing in the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee.
ICWA is of special interest to the NUC as they also passed a resolution at their January 21 meeting asking the State of Utah to create a State of Utah Indian and Child Welfare Act as the federal act could be heading to the Supreme Court.
The highest court in the land is considering hearing cases that could challenge ICWA which gives adoption and foster preferences for Native American children be placed in Native American homes if family, native or otherwise, is unable to take care of foster children.
One of the arguments against the federal act is related to commandeering, A Supreme Court interpretation of the 10th Amendment to mean the federal government cannot force states to pass or not pass certain legislation or to enforce federal law.
In a report from the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, the NUC was advised that one way of dealing with anti-commandeering is if state legislatures themselves pass statutes implementing ICWA.
At their January 21 meeting, the Navajo Utah Commission passed a resolution requesting the 2022 Utah legislature to establish a State of Utah Indian Child Welfare Act statutes and to comply with tribal consultation in drafting legislation.
The Supreme Court recently relisted cases related to ICWA meaning they did not grant or deny review, as the cases remain in limbo.