“We are here to learn the facts and to get smart,” the Governor told his hosts throughout the day. He mentioned a recent visit to Navajo Nation headquarters in Window Rock, AZ, where he was the first Utah Governor to address the Assembly. He vowed that the State of Utah is determined to “develop a much closer alliance and relationship with the Navajo Nation.”
The trip was initially designed to be a two-day visit, but the Governor’s desire to attend the funeral of a slain corrections officer cut the trip in half. An additional meeting on the trip was a quick visit with Tom and Terri Winder, the parents of Special Forces medic Nathan Winder, who was killed in Iraq.
Navajo American issues dominated the agenda of most meetings of the Huntsman visit. The Governor made stops in Blanding, White Mesa, Montezuma Creek, Oljato, Bluff, Mexican Hat, and Monument Valley. The cancelled second day of the trip was scheduled to include a visit to Navajo Mountain.
The day began with a quick meeting with representatives of the San Juan School District. Huntsman is determined to meet with officials in all 40 school districts before the end of 2007. He stated that the meetings will help him as the state determines the best use of funds for education.
Huntsman pledged that any continuing surplus in state revenue will be plowed into education. The most recent session of the state legislature resulted in unprecedented increases in teacher wages and overall education spending.
School officials discussed many of the challenges facing the San Juan School District, including transportation expenses, replacing or renovating aging facilities, teacher recruitment and retention, decreasing enrollment, and tribal, legal, state and federal mandates.
The Governor made an unprecedented stop in White Mesa, where he met with leaders of the small community, an offshoot of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Towaoc, CO.
Education was the focus of a meeting at Montezuma Creek Elementary School, where officials released a “Navajo Nation Position Statement on Education Issues in Utah”. The statement was approved by the Naavjo Nation Council on June 18.
The statement outlines six areas of collaboration between the newly created Navajo Nation Department of Education and the State of Utah.
The document states that the Navajo Nation Department of Education will evolve into a state-like Department of Education to coordinate a working partnership between the 258 schools in and around the Navajo Nation.
The document also calls for data sharing between the Utah Office of Education and the Navajo Nation, native language programs, Native American culture classes, a cabinet-level position for Indian education issues, and programs to address teacher shortages.
The next meeting was held in Aneth and focused on judicial issues. Local officials are attempting to create an Aneth district of the Navajo Nation Tribal Court system and hope to build a $6 million court facility.
The proposed Aneth District would serve nine communities in the area with a population of 1,685. The areas that would be served include Aneth, Oljato, Red Mesa, Mexican Water, Teec Nos Pos, Dennehotso, Rock Point, Sweetwater and Navajo Mountain.
A representative of the Navajo Nation Tribal Court system put it simply when he stated, “We need court services so the other two systems of government operate effectively.”
Before the creation of the new court in Aneth, the nearest courts were in Kayenta and Shiprock, which are 79 and 66 miles from Aneth, respectively.
Huntsman told the group in Aneth that he was there to “learn on-site what we need to know” and that the group would need to initiate the process to seek state funding for the project. “Every facility in the State has to go through the same process in order to receive funding,” said Huntsman. A representative of the Utah court system added that sometimes the funding process can take years.
The visit continued on to Bluff and a quick visit to the Historic Bluff Fort, in addition to stops at Goosenecks State Park and Mexican Hat.
In Monument Valley, the Governor met with leaders of the Oljato and Navajo Mountain Chapters. Water and water rights were a focus of discussion, including the on-going process of securing a dependable water system at Navajo Mountain.
The development of a Utah Navajo Water Master Plan is proposed. The proposal would develop water plans for all of the Navajo Nation chapters in Utah.
As proposed, the project would “empower a chapter to begin its own water planning and advocacy for water development.”