American Indians' political influence is growing nationwide, according to a book published in May by two University of Utah professors and a research associate, but Forrest Cuch, director of Utah Indian Affairs, said the group still holds little sway in Utah.
With a population that makes up only 1.3 percent of Utahns, Cuch sees little possibility for American Indians, who only gained the right to vote in Utah 50 years ago, to cast enough votes to make a significant impact on election outcomes. He described Utah American Indians' political force in a word powerless.
"I've always hoped that the Indian population would be able to grow and exercise its voting power more," Cuch said, "but we're so small that I think the greater impact is probably going to come from Hispanics. And I hate to say that my people do not have enough impact."
Dan McCool, a political science professor at the U. and director of the university's American West Center and the environmental studies program, agreed with Cuch.
McCool is one of the authors of the book "Native Vote: The Voting Rights Act, and the Right to Vote," which charts legal victories to enfranchise American Indians under the Voting Rights Act.
"American Indians in Utah are not significant players in statewide elections for two reasons: One, they are few in number and, two, they tend to vote Democrat, but most elections in Utah are dominated by Republicans," McCool said in an e-mail.
The book said the American Indian vote has increasingly become a factor in elections, saying the group's vote was crucial to Al Gore winning New Mexico during the 2000 presidential elections and that it helped decide the wins for South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano.
"Small groups of minority voters, such as Indians, can play a deciding role in very close elections, but that seldom happens in Utah," McCool said. "The real impact of Indian voting in Utah is at the local level."
One Utah county knows how that works.
Kenneth Maryboy has to balance his role as a Navajo leader with duties as a San Juan County commissioner, taking office in January. His brother, Mark Maryboy, made history when he was elected in 1986 as the first American Indian county commissioner, also in San Juan, in Utah's history. The county has had one Navajo county commissioner ever since.
The other two commissioners say having a Navajo voice has helped guide decisions in a county that contains the Utah portion of the Navajo Indian Reservation and has a population that is more than half American Indians.
The U.S. Justice Department won a battle in 1984 to change the election process for county commissioner from an at-large, countywide vote to having the county's three districts each elect a commissioner. This allowed the 3rd District, made up mostly of Navajos, the ability to elect a Navajo commissioner.
Maryboy, the county's third Navajo commissioner, said he is developing a good relationship with Bruce Adams, the chairman of the commission.
"He's very blunt with me," Maryboy said about Adams. "I'm the same way ... I'm open with him, and that's how we work."
Maryboy wears several hats besides commissioner, one as a Navajo Nation delegate. He must balance meeting the interests of the entire county and his own people.
"We've been very close on a lot of issues," he said about commission decisions, "and there are times that I just have to pucker up and either vote against or vote for it and just hang on for the ride," he said.
Adams said he and Maryboy have stayed together on almost all of the issues they have dealt with. He praised the county's change to single-district elections, saying it ensured a seat on the commission for a Navajo.
"More than 55 percent of registered voters in San Juan County are Native Americans, and they need to be represented, which is something that maybe Anglo commissioners had not had that perspective before."
Commissioner Lynn Stevens said the commission was unified with the previous Navajo commissioner, Manuel Morgan.
The county still faces a host of challenges.
Adams said a stark difference in available resources between the county and reservation limits how much information candidates can get out before an election.
"It's very difficult because of the limited amount of communication access that they have," he said. "(The Indians) just don't have as much opportunity as the Anglos do to have those kinds of influences in their lives, and it creates a disparity."
Cultural differences between the Anglo and Navajo communities can translate into differences in policy priorities, Adams said.Stevens and McCool speculated that the county could have two Navajo commissioners in the not-so-distant future.
E-mail: [email protected]