ANETH, San Juan County — As Utahns head to the polls today to choose a governor and fill other offices, another battle is brewing in the southeast corner of the state that will set the course for thousands of members of the Navajo Nation.
Three delegates to the Navajo Nation Council in Window Rock, Ariz. — including two from Utah and one just over the state line in Arizona — are vying for one spot in the reshaped legislature, which is shrinking from 88 seats to 24. It's part of an election in which Navajos could elect their first female president, Lynda Lovejoy, a New Mexico state senator.
Locally, the biggest issue is an emotional tussle over a trust fund that holds royalties from oil and gas leases in and around Aneth. That fund's assets doubled to more than $52 million this year when Utah agreed to settle a lawsuit over alleged abuses during the decades that the state oversaw it.
Utah gave up its oversight role two years ago, and no projects to benefit the Utah Navajos — many of whom have no electricity or running water — can be initiated until Congress picks a new trustee. The Navajo Nation, which receives 62.5 percent of the royalties, wants control of the whole fund.
"Hell no," says Kenneth Maryboy, one of the council candidates and a San Juan County commissioner. "Keep the money in Utah."
Utah Navajos have long complained that they live in a no man's land, ignored by both the state government and their own nation's byzantine political system, and many don't trust either to use the fund to help them.
Maryboy also claims Utah Navajos were cut out of funding for any projects from the federal stimulus.
"There are tons of developments in the Utah area. None of them were ever considered," he said.
Montezuma Creek delegate Davis Filfred, the other incumbent on the ballot, said other Navajos resent the trust fund settlement, thinking it showered the Utah Navajos with cash when the royalties are actually being tied up.
"People think we have all the money, which we don't," said Filfred, who along with Maryboy, his grandfather by clan affiliation, is pushing for local control.
"The Navajo Nation does not know how to spend money," Filfred said. "It keeps spending money it doesn't have and digging further into the red."
Francis Redhouse, a self-described "independent guy" from Teec Nos Pos, Ariz., is running a write-in campaign in the council district, which dips slightly into his state. He says the Navajo Nation should have oversight over all royalties.
Redhouse has a tough message for Utah Navajos: Stop whining. He says many don't realize that some of the 62.5 percent of the oil money that goes to Window Rock trickles back to Utah through funding for the local chapters.
"I'm not convinced that every one of the beneficiaries clearly understands that process," Redhouse said. "They have to understand they are getting assisted."
Redhouse said he has visited all seven Utah chapters except Mexican Water, Maryboy's hometown, and he sees a double standard in the attitudes of Utah Navajos.
"They still want to be independent from the Navajo Nation, but they still want to have their hand in the cookie jar," he said.
"I've always been honest with people," Redhouse added. "I might have offended a lot of people, but I've been up front."
Redhouse says he is not affiliated with any group, but John Billie, president of the Aneth chapter, is promoting a rally Saturday for the outsider. Some Aneth residents who claim descent from the 19th-century Navajo warrior K'aayelli support the Navajo Nation as the oil fund trustee, and want an extra portion of that to address the environmental impact of oil and gas extraction practices.
For now, a holding fund overseen by the state is completing already-approved projects, including renovating houses, repairing roads and providing college scholarships.
Turmoil surrounding the Navajo election — Filfred was among dozens of legislators named this month in a criminal complaint alleging misuse of council funds — may delay work by U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson and U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett on legislation to establish a new, independently audited trust fund commission with representatives from each Utah chapter.
Redhouse believes "there will always be division" among the various factions throughout the Navajo Nation.
Maryboy is similarly pessimistic, recalling that Joe Shirley, the outgoing Navajo president, originally promised Utah Navajos he would help them.
"All that went kaput, and we ended up fighting him," Maryboy said. "Who are we going to fight next?"