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Red Mesa » For Utah Navajos, the proposed settlement of a long-running lawsuit alleging state mismanagement of their trust fund is like a prayer half answered.
Tuesday's $33 million agreement represents a moral victory that also would boost trust fund efforts to underwrite education, environmental cleanups and much needed infrastructure such as paved roads, water, and electricity.
"There was a lot of anger and frustration," Susie Johnson-Philemon said of more than 17 years spent in litigation, "and we stood our ground."
But her brother, Harry Johnson, points out the agreement is far short of what their late father and other "old-timers" had sought in bringing the action against Utah.
"I think he would be happy that there is a settlement," Johnson said of his father, Fred, who died in 2002. "But he would say we should get a lot more: $80 million to $100 million."
Any disbursement of settlement funds also will have to wait until the Utah Navajo Trust Fund gets a new trustee. The state renounced its role managing oil royalties in the trust fund two years ago, sparking a battle for control that has halted spending.
Sen. Bob Bennett has introduced legislation in Congress that would make a Utah Navajo organization, the Utah Dineh Corp., trustee. But the administration of Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley continues to lobby Congress to be named trustee. A third group of Navajos from Utah's Aneth Chapter also is vying to become trustee.
Utah Navajos fear they will realize only a fraction of the benefits the money could bring if the Navajo Nation, headquartered in Window Rock, Ariz., becomes trustee.
"We feel victorious in our corner now," said Kenneth Maryboy, a plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit who also is a San Juan County commissioner and member of the Navajo Nation tribal council. "But the Navajo Nation is lobbying every day to see the trust money goes to Window Rock."
Maryboy and Johnson-Philemon say through the years of litigation, Utah Navajos have had no support from the Nation.
"People need to know that we aren't only Navajos. We are Utah state citizens, too," Johnson-Philemon said.
Red Mesa Chapter President Herman Farley hopes Utah Navajos will be able to manage their own trust fund, which would double in size if the settlement is approved. The struggle is ongoing to bring Utah Navajos education, clean drinking water, electricity and transportation, Farley said.
"I'm really glad this is being settled," he said. "We have a lot of high school and college students who are short funded."
Many feel education is key to the future for the Navajo people, according to former San Juan County Commissioner Mark Maryboy, the older brother of Kenneth Maryboy and the first Navajo elected to the San Juan County Commission.
Mark Maryboy, who is a University of Utah graduate, credits the trust with his education and that of other Navajos.
"Education is the way out of poverty and the way out of a hopeless situation," he said.
But the trust also has built roads and housing and has provided water and electricity for many among Utah's Navajos. The 2,000 Census put their numbers at 7,000. Mark Maryboy said a more accurate estimate is about 10,500.
Driving around the Utah portion of the vast Navajo reservation, he points to paved roads, power lines and housing developments as fruits of the trust. But he also points to people such as Winifred Begaye, who, like 20 percent of Utah Navajos, live without running water and electricity.
Begaye must haul her water from a well about five miles away from her small house south of Bluff. She heats her home with coal and wood she gathers along the banks of the San Juan River. She whiles away long winter evenings with a transistor radio and reads by kerosene lamp.
"I keep asking for electricity and water," she said. "But I never get it."
Begaye is on a list to get those utilities, Mark Maryboy explains. But it hasn't happened yet, and with the trust frozen waiting for a new trustee, it's difficult to know when she will get such amenities.
In contrast, Mark and Kenneth Maryboy's mother, Clara Maryboy, 87, now has electricity and running water after living most of her life without it.
Like many tribal elders, she does not speak English. But in the warmth of her cozy home at Whiterock Point, she said through a translator that she enjoys what those utilities bring, including the ease of cooking and bathing.
For Leonard Lee, who has served on the board of the trust fund for 18 years, "It's a promising day."
The settlement will help Utah Navajos become "self-sustaining, rather than depending on the tribe," he said.
Utah Navajos, like Lee, see a day when education and economic development bring their people good health and prosperity.
Utah Navajo leaders look to financial and community models put to use in such things as the successful Utah Navajo Health System.
"To me, the way forward is going through these community nonprofit centers," he said. "With them, we can direct our own destiny."