Navajo Indians have pleaded with state officials to recognize most of San Juan County as traditional Indian hunting grounds and to change current regulations that interfere with Indian customs in hunting - so far to no avail.
Representatives of the Kaiyella Tribe, claiming treaty rights of access to and use of traditional hunting grounds, asked state Division of Wildlife Resources officials this month to designate a special hunting day for Navajos in southeastern Utah."We don't have special hunts for any group," said Miles Moretti, regional supervisor for the division office in Price. "To have a special hunt just for Navajos would take legislation, or something out of the courts, on treaties or something."
Moretti met Sept. 17 with residents of the Utah Navajo Reservation and San Juan County commissioners. He said Friday the 1868 treaty establishing the Utah Navajo Reservation will be researched to determine what hunting privileges, if any, were to be preserved in land exchanges with the tribe.
"Since our meeting, I've found out it's possible it only talks about hunting in New Mexico and Arizona, not Utah," Moretti said.
The original treaty establishing the reservation did not include the Utah Strip, which was added later by executive order.
Jean Melton, of the Utah Intertribal Coalition, said some people argue that treaty rights apply only to Indian lands within the original reservation boundaries.
San Juan Commissioner Mark Maryboy said additional meetings at chapter houses on the reservation will be scheduled for officials of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to discuss hunting regulations with Navajo hunters.
He said the goal is to resolve conflicts as much as possible before the deer hunt, which opens Oct. 6 in the Elk Ridge area.
Concerns about hunting rights have surfaced at commission meetings throughout the year. Last year, reservation chapters passed a resolution listing the concerns, and Maryboy worked on legislation addressing the treaty issues.
Last week, three residents of the Utah Strip proposed that the state designate a special period for the Navajos "to hunt according to treaties," Maryboy said.
The Dine' hunt, which would encompass most of San Juan County, would allow the Navajos to hunt without competition or interference from non-Indians, Maryboy said. (Dine' is the ancestral name for the Utah Navajos).
Maryboy said the Navajos also want their traditional style of hunting incorporated into regulations on hunting.
"They feel the people come in from out of state and occupy the whole area, and they also get harassed by the DWR," he said. "A lot of them don't read and write, they don't understand the signs, and they get rifles and things taken from them."
Commissioners took no action on the request for a special hunting period, but Maryboy said the matter is under review.
In meetings and other communications with various state officials throughout the year, Navajos have complained about situations where friends or family have been arrested or claimed to have been harassed when hunting in the traditional way, which incorporates religious customs and ceremonies.
For example, Navajos leave the head and other unused portions of an animal buried at the site of a kill, or return the carcass to the area.
Moretti said state regulations require proof that the animal is a doe or buck, which is hard to determine when the head and reproductive organs are missing.
Navajos also hold sanction against talking about religious customs, and Moretti said sometimes during hunts they refrain from talking altogether.
"If they get a deer and they're not talking to us, I'm sure there'll be harassment because we're thinking the guys are ignoring us," he said.
"I think a lot (of the problem) is just differences in cultures and communications."
Many Navajos cannot read English and do not understand hunting rules, proclamations and signs prohibiting trespassing on private land. Maryboy said he helps teach hunter education classes for Navajos. "But when they go home, the traditional leaders are taught a different way."
Harry Johnson told commissioners at one meeting that conflicts between Navajos and wildlife officials have worsened every year, and Melton said the situation "won't stand for overly aggressive enforcement of hunting laws down here."