To understand why Wilfred Jones wanted an ambulance, you have to understand where he lives. San Juan County, in southeastern Utah, is nearly as big as New Jersey but is home to fewer than 15,000 people. The lower third is part of the Navajo Nation and is almost entirely Ute and Navajo. The upper two-thirds are white and predominantly Mormon. Jones, a 61-year-old grandfather with jet-black hair and a diamond stud in each ear, lives in the lower third, five miles south of the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Montezuma Creek. It’s rough, rocky country, where bullet holes riddle the road signs and lonely pumpjacks ply oil from the earth. The nearest services are in Blanding, some 40 miles north. Sixteen years ago, when Jones joined the board of the Utah Navajo Health System, he realized his neighbors were dying because the closest ambulances — the county’s, in Blanding, and the tribe’s, in Kayenta, Arizona — were an hour away “on a good day.” So Jones asked the county commission if one of San Juan’s ambulances could be housed in a garage in Montezuma Creek. From there, it would take half the time to rush an elder suffering a heart attack to medical care.
But the county wasn’t interested. Over the next decade, Jones says, he and other health advocates repeatedly tried to get the commission to improve ambulance service on the reservation. But while the sole Navajo commissioner was supportive, the two white commissioners were usually not. (Former Navajo Commissioner Mark Maryboy and others corroborate Jones’ account, though no official votes appear in county records.)
Eventually, Jones gave up: The Utah Navajo Health System trained its own EMS volunteers, built a garage and bought ambulances with tribal and federal funds. It stung, but wasn’t surprising. Though Native Americans on the reservation don’t pay property taxes, they indirectly contribute millions of dollars in oil revenue and federal funds to the county each year, which is supposed to be returned in services like education and health care. But many Navajo requests — from building schools to implementing bicultural education to improving roads — have been denied by Anglo residents, who have always held a majority in elected offices despite comprising less than half of the county’s population.
Now, Native Americans could gain control of county government for the first time. Earlier this year, U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby ruled that San Juan County violated both the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution by relying on race to draw the boundaries of its voting districts. By engaging in “racial gerrymandering,” San Juan County systematically diluted the strength of the Native vote, keeping Natives out of power and skewing the makeup of the county commission and the school board. The system, perpetuated for decades, “offends basic democratic principles,” Shelby wrote.