Twelve Navajos line up outside the Aneth Chapter House on the Navajo Reservation, waiting to vote for tribal council posts.
The tribal ballot has a broken arrow printed beside each candidate's name. Navajos mark the ballot by drawing a pencil line between the two arrow halves next to the chosen candidate.Around the corner of the blue concrete block building, eight other Navajos wait to check traditional ballots in the San Juan County elections. By 8:30 a.m., 50 people, or one-thirteenth of the registered voters in this precinct, have voted.
For the first time ever, there are six Indian candidates, all Democrats, running for San Juan County government positions that are perennially held by white Republicans in an area the Indian and non-Indian population is split 50-50.
Andrew Tso, a young Navajo who wears his hair in long braids, is translating the English ballot into Navajo for his mother and father. Tso's picture is also displayed around the corner on a poster advertising him as a candidate for the Navajo Tribal Council.
San Juan County Commissioner Mark Maryboy is the first Navajo to hold a seat on the commission. He is seeking re-election and is also on the ballot for the Tribal Council, which governs Indian affairs on the Navajo Reservation that spills into the southeast corner of Utah.
Non-Indians that are being challenged by Indians for county posts see ethnic backgrounds polarizing the election more than party affiliation. "We are looked at down here as mounting some kind of campaign to keep Indians from power," said County Attorney Craig Halls, who is running for re-election unopposed. "The sex appeal in the story is us denying the Navajos something."
San Juan County Clerk Gail Johnson said the Indian issue has made all of the headlines. She is being challenged by Ruby Nakai, a Cherokee married to a Utah Navajo who disagrees that race is the pre-eminent issue. "That's what this whole thing is about, getting involved with government," Nakai said. "It doesn't have anything to do with race."
Navajos say they receive little attention from their tribal government, which is based in Ship-rock, N.M. The Indians also say they are largely ignored by San Juan County government officials.
"Just because they are uneducated, they are treated differently," Navajo Harry Johnson said to Halls in an emotional meeting Monday. "You treat Indians like animals."
To gain political say, the Navajos mounted a massive voter-registration drive among Indians who live both on and off the reservation. Their efforts were seen at the polls on Tuesday when Navajos turned out in large numbers in the southeastern precincts.
Indian activists charged that Navajo voters were being intimidated, and those charges brought federal and state officials to monitor Tuesday's county elections. At midmorning Tuesday, voting appeared to be without incident, said Lt. Gov. Val Oveson, who observed poll activities at the Montezuma Creek Elementary School about 20 miles from Aneth.
At the school at 8:15 a.m., six voters were casting ballots while five monitors from the U.S. Justice Department, three state officials, three election judges and three Navajo interpreters and two reporters watched.
"This place is swarming with people monitoring the monitors," said a Justice Department official, who refused to give his name.
In the first 45 minutes the polls were open at Bluff Community Center, 27 residents had voted. Among the 13 Navajo voters was Freddie Yazzie, 30. Yazzie was mistakenly registered in the Red Mesa District. His registration was challenged by election judges, but when he said he lived in Bluff and promised not to vote twice, he was given a ballot.
Oveson said the system appeared to be taking care of duplicate voter registrations. "Duplicate registrations are not a problem. Duplicate voting is a problem."
Despite the concerns of Indian activists, Oveson said problems hadn't materialized. "This whole process, with as many outsiders that are here, is intimidating. I'm not aware of any overt intimidation."
Earlier, Navajos complained that a plan to tape record interpreters infringed on voters' civil rights and was a ploy to keep Navajos out of county government. Oveson said tape recording was canceled due to the complaints. It wouldn't have infringed on voters' rights but would have satisfied Justice Department concerns that interpreters were translating the ballot correctly. "This is outrageous," said Navajo Ben Nakai, when he heard about the planned recording. "This is communistic, or a dictatorship or whatever you want to call it. This is America. All we want is to be included, to be counted."
212 sent to guard minority voting rights
The Office of Personnel Management sent 212 observers to safeguard minority voting rights in seven counties during Tuesday's national elections, the Justice Department said.
Eighty-two observers are in Navajo and Apache counties, Arizona. McKinley County, N.M., and San Juan County, Utah, also are within the Navajo Reservation. McKinley County will get 21 observers and San Juan County 25.
The other counties and their observers are Sandoval County, N.M., with 24 observers; Chester County, S.C., 24; and Edgecombe County, N.C., 36.