(EnviroNews Utah) — Salt Lake City, Utah — Amidst frustration over a recent lack of progress on Native American concerns, several tribal leaders aligned with representatives of the Utah House Minority in an effort to advance the discussion. Their demand was simple: they want to see the Director of Utah’s Division of Indian Affairs (UDIA), Shirlee Silversmith, elevated to a full gubernatorial cabinet position, “rather than [just] a secondary level position.”
Alongside other tribal leaders, Virgil Johnson, an elder from the Goshute tribe in western Utah, spoke of parity between tribes and state government, and as an example, pointed to places like Washington, Nebraska and New Mexico where gubernatorial cabinet-level positions already exist.
In the past, Utah’s Division of Indian Affairs has administered educational programs, housing assistance, and economic development in cooperation with the federal government, to address the specific needs and concerns of Utah’s Native people. At the March 6 press conference, a coalition of advocacy groups, including the League of Native American Voters, Utah Diné Bikéyah and the Utah Tribal Association, joined in the effort as well — all hoping to increase the power of Native voices in Utah’s government.
While endorsing more involvement and management interaction, Representative Mark Wheatley, (Democrat – Murray, SL County) explained his own history with the Utah Native American Consortium of the early 70’s. Wheatley called for a cabinet-level position; just like exists in other western states. “It is shameful that we have individuals living, in my terms, in third-world conditions,” he said. Wheatley is a member of the Utah House Native American Legislative Liaison Committee.
Joining Wheatley from the Minority block, Representative Susan Duckworth (Democrat — Western SL County) was moved to tears by what she described as a special relationship with her Native friends, adding she felt a “quiet reverence” when in their presence. She described the cabinet role proposal as recognition that’s been “a long-time coming” and endorsed the idea completely.
Moroni Benally, Co-Founder of the League of Native American Voters, told EnviroNews Utah that the tribes in the state believe Governor Gary Herbert’s (R) office is open to a conversation about reorganizing the Division of Native American Affairs. He also expects, a joint standing committee will hold some “reasonable and rational discussions” toward this goal during the legislature’s interim study. Gavin Noyes, Executive Director of the Utah Diné Bikéyah also stood in solidarity with the other advocates at the press event.
Recent frustrations for tribes in the West, and particularly in Utah, include a downsizing of the Obama Administration’s Bears Ears National Monument, created in December, 2017, and located in southeastern Utah near tribal reservations in the Four Corners area. By way of an executive order, President Donald Trump has ordered his Interior Department to reduce the monument by roughly 85 percent. That move is being challenged in court by environmental groups and several tribes.
Tribes throughout the US desire a greater voice in legislative and executive branches of government. An order in Federal District Court is presently re-districting the political boundaries in San Juan County, Utah (one of the state’s poorest), where Native voters say they have been underrepresented for decades.
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