A chance to share their culture with state lawmakers motivated Montezuma Creek Elementary School children to wake up at 3 a.m. earlier this week for a 350-mile trek to Utah's Capitol.
Their principal, Rebecca Benaly, asked lawmakers at a luncheon to "always remember human beings come first" as they evaluate legislation. One of the key pieces involves the Navajo Trust Fund, which the state wants to get out of managing, primarily because of litigation issues.
Still, legislators are willing to work with tribal leaders. House Majority Leader Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, is sponsoring HB352, which would provide for temporary management of the Navajo Trust Fund after state control sunsets on June 30. Ultimately, Congress will have to set up the fund's permanent management.
"Utah is the only state under a congressional order to manage a (Native American) trust fund," Clark said. "We would no longer have the fiduciary responsibility. It may be better served for the tribe itself."
Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, whose great-grandmother was full-blooded Arapaho, says it's important "to continue to have a working relationship" with Utah's tribes.
Valentine said Utah has been sued three times over management of the trust since it was created in 1933. It holds 37.5 percent of royalties from oil and gas exploration on the Navajo reservation in Utah, with the rest going to the Navajo Nation as a whole.
"We've fully agreed to allow it to continue," Valentine said. "We just don't want to be sued anymore."
Utah's Navajo chapters hope to be able to keep the funds in Utah and take over management.
"That's what we're hoping for," said Earl Lee, who represents the Aneth Chapter for the Dine Committee of the Utah Navajo Trust Fund. "The local people are very leery of the trust fund going to the Navajo Nation, their general fund."
Charles Long, legislative staff assistant for the speaker of the Navajo Nation Council, said the speaker wants to ensure that "during the interim, no services will be cut to the people who live in Utah." He said the temporary management by the revitalization board could slow projects because it meets only bimonthly. While the Navajo Nation isn't opposed to local control of the fund, he said there would have to be some oversight."Something needs to be worked out," Long said. "We need to hustle up and work out a lot of things."