Community joins American Indian tribes in questioning legislature, UTA

Illustration by Nick Moore

Recently, a public forum was held during which leaders from the Utah Native American Tribal Council, representatives of the Utah Transit Authority and government representatives discussed the impending fate of a land tract in Draper. The following is an opinioned play-by-play of said meeting.

 

There wasn’t just American Indian blood boiling over recent legislature, corporate action and media coverage pertaining to the UTA Frontrunner project in Draper. The community of Draper is up in arms, as well as concerned citizens from all over the state who came to the Utah Native American Tribal Leaders meeting in Salt Lake City on Thursday to weigh in on the situation. Many interesting things came out from many different perspectives, but it seems all the people there who neither represented UTA nor the government had one thing in common: They do not like the signs they are seeing in the way UTA is conducting their activities or the way in which the legislature is handling this issue.

The first problem on this issue was perceived misrepresentation by the media of negotiations with Native American tribes. The Council is currently sending a letter to the Governor and the media. According to the Council, local media had falsely claimed that the tribes had approved a deal on which the Frontrunner project was to proceed, only to later back out on it. The letter also clarified the Tribal Council’s oppositional stance regarding the Frontrunner project. According to Kenneth Maryboy, a Council Delegate for the Navajo Nation, no such deal was ever made. The Tribal Council also demands an apology and a public correction from the media. Several Tribal members stated that although they have supported Frontrunner in the past due to its small carbon footprint, they do not support the construction of a station on culturally significant native soil.

Things began to heat up as Jason Gipson, Chief of the Nevada-Utah Regulatory Branch, Army Corps of Engineers, presented arguments and the the floor was opened to questions with a call for peaceful discussion. Several elders of the Native American community stood up and expressed grave concerns. One began by decrying the historic and current disrespect for Native American graves and disregard of the deep significance of American Indian respect for their ancestors. Another, Forrest Cuch, confronted the UTA representative directly.

“This bullying, talking behind people’s backs – this isn’t the way the Tribes work,” he said. He stated that the UTA held meetings without the Tribes in secret.

Utah’s government and its Native American tribes have been at odds over several matters. According to Cuch, former Director of Indian Affairs, “Besides the UTA Frontrunner issue, there are water rights struggles, jurisdiction problems and taxation issues between the tribes and state government.”

In addition to these issues, Utah’s tribes are upset with Governor Herbert for firing Cuch without giving a true explanation, saying only that he was not happy with Cuch’s performance. He did not elaborate, nor did he show any signs of discontent with Cuch up until the firing. According to an article by Christopher Smart in the Salt Lake Tribune on March 24, the Tribes feel that they have lost a voice with the legislature because of this dismissal.

At the Tribal Council meeting, concerned citizens of Draper began standing up and stating their own frustrations with UTA and the legislature. One man said that no one was talking about money as part of the issue and that they should – that legally, the public should have access to information on who is benefiting from the project. He said no one would talk to him or answer his calls. At least one person reported receiving death threats after questioning the Frontrunner deal.

Government watchdog Claire Geddes expressed that she was “terrifically concerned” about how the legislature was handling the issue. There had been a conflict of interest with the UTA planning – then HB 222 was passed, which stripped the conflict of interest.

“This decision was driven by special interests,” she said. “We should have complete confidence in UTA – and I don’t.”

The statements that falsely accuse the Tribes of going back on a deal came out of the UTA board, she said. “We don’t like this process.”

Draper mayor Darrel Smith was also very concerned, but optimistic, and said he felt the dialogue was a starting point and that people could now begin to work together and move forward.  He wasn’t off the hook, though. Once outside the meeting, he was confronted by several Draper residents on the lack of transparency and what their city was becoming. “All I’m asking,” one man said to him, “is for you to represent me. Can you do that?”

It appears few involved feel like their voices are being heard in the legislature. Although some would argue that this is nothing new for Native Americans, many still expressed disappointment. Native Americans want others to understand “that they were here first, that there were bloody conflicts – as many as 150 – and that they are still here,” said Cuch. “They deserve to have their history told and they want to be identified as part of Utah, as well as the LDS Church.”

Although the Council was forced to move on to other issues due to the lack of time, the hall outside was buzzing with excitement and concern. People were confronting and arguing with officials and UTA representatives over many interesting and controversial subjects. One woman claimed her family had video of development happening where there had been no plans published and that the public had been in the dark.

One man stated, “Seems like that area just south of Bangerter – everybody wants it.” There were claims that there were unpublished plans to make that area of Draper the second largest skyline in the state behind Salt Lake City.

As she was leaving, Geddes said that she had outlived most legislators in office and worked many years on the hill, yet had never seen anything this ugly happening.

“The public isn’t just going to keep going along with this process,” she said.

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