Tammie Nakai lives under a vista of red-rock spires and purple sunrise sky that offers arguably some of the United States’ most breathtaking views. But her home lacks what most of the country considers basic necessities: electric lines and running water. “It’s been that way my whole life, almost 31 years,” she said at the jewelry stand she and her husband run with pride in Monument Valley, a rural community near the Utah-Arizona border where tourists stand in the highway to re-create a famous running scene from “Forest Gump.” As she decides how she’ll cast her ballot, Navajo voters like Nakai could tip the balance of power in their county on Nov. 6. It’s the first general election since a federal judge decided racially gerrymandered districts illegally minimized the voices of Navajo voters who make a slim majority of San Juan County’s population. The county overlaps with the Navajo Nation, where people face huge disparities in health, education and economics. About 40 percent lack running water in their homes.
The race highlights the simmering tensions between Native Americans and white residents who live across the San Juan River on ranches and in towns laid out in neat grids by Mormon settlers. Though county leaders acknowledge the historical inequities Navajo people face, they say those issues go far beyond their reach.
Willie Grayeyes disagrees. After a fight to get on the ballot, the Democratic County Commission candidate is running in a new district and wants to help address needs like basic utilities and neglected dirt roads that tear up buses and can wash out in storms, keeping students out of school.
Overlapping county, federal and tribal governments mean it’s not always clear who is responsible for any given problem. But if Grayeyes wins, the county’s governing body will be majority Navajo for the first time.