Editorial: Commissioner Willie Grayeyes’ Residency Claim Rests on Far More than Cultural Beliefs

To understand why San Juan County Commissioner Willie Grayeyes’ Utah residency is in dispute, it helps to understand Piute Mesa, a remote strip of redrock that contains roughly 20 modular homes and traditional hogans, many of which lack running water and electricity. Driving from the mesa to the hamlet of Navajo Mountain, Utah, requires crossing a deep sandstone canyon that can become impassable when wet. And basic services — grocery stores, laundromats, gas stations, or broadband internet — require an even longer trip across the Utah state line. With Lake Powell to the north, the 10,300-foot Navajo Mountain to the west, and an maze of canyons to the east, the only way to access the Navajo Mountain area is through Arizona, making the area an island of San Juan County cut off from the county seat in Monticello by a nine-hour, round-trip drive.

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The route between Piute Mesa and Monticello, Utah. Source: Google.

Grayeyes was born on Piute Mesa in March 1946, and has served the Navajo Mountain area as a public official for most of his adult life. He still maintains a grazing permit for livestock on the mesa, his umbilical cord was buried there in accordance with Diné tradition, and his immediate family has claim to a home there, though that’s currently disputed by a distant cousin. Grayeyes and his late wife purchased a doublewide in Page, Ariz., in 1981, and his children attended school in Page in the 1980s and early 90s while Grayeyes continued to travel to Navajo Mountain to serve in various positions with the Navajo Nation government. (The Page home has since been boarded up, according to Grayeyes’ family members.)

Grayeyes has never been registered to vote in Arizona, and he began voting in San Juan County when he was 18. He has family in Navajo Mountain and frequently stays at their homes, but he also has an office in Tuba City, Arizona, where his girlfriend lives. Grayeyes has himself said he is on the road “almost all the time” for work, which until recently included serving on the board of nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah. Most if not all residents of Navajo Mountain have an Arizona driver’s license and an Arizona PO Box. So pinning down Grayeyes’ exact residency is…complicated.

Yet on December 28, Kelly Laws, a Blanding resident who lost the county commission election to Grayeyes by a nine-point margin in November, filed a complaint in Seventh District Court in Monticello, claiming that Grayeyes is not a Utah resident. And at a subsequent Jan. 22 hearing, Laws’ attorney Peter Stirba made the case that Grayeyes “primary residence” was in Page, which would disqualify him from holding Utah office.

In the trial proceedings, two of Grayeyes’ daughters testified under oath that Grayeyes has not lived in the Page home full-time since 1988. Former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah and elder medicine man Johnson Dennison both discussed the importance of livestock grazing and the burial of the umbilical cord to the notion of home in traditional Diné culture, which prompted waves of quiet laughter from portions of the courtroom audience. All of this was used to build the case for Grayeyes’ residency claim, but after the trial, some San Juan County residents suggested the entire trial would hinge on the umbilical cord discussion.

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Exchange on the San Juan Record Facebook page after the Grayeyes hearing. Screenshot.

Grayeyes’ attorney Steve Boos argued in court that owning property in another state does not make you a resident of that state. Boos mentioned another recently elected official in Utah, Sen. Mitt Romney, who was born one year after Grayeyes in March 1947 in an affluent neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan. Romney was later educated in California, Utah, and Massachusetts, before serving as governor of Massachusetts and running for president in 2012. He has owned up to six houses at one time, including a $8.9 million, 8,700-square-foot ski retreat in Park City, Utah. He didn’t change his Twitter location from Massachusetts to Utah until Jan. 2018, yet his residency status is apparently not in dispute, which prompted Grayeyes to ask the Salt Lake Tribune earlier this month, “Why don’t they go after him too?”

The Romney comparison is a useful one. If, like Romney, Grayeyes had served in elected positions outside of Utah — say for a decade on the Page City Council — and if he had suddenly cited the burial of his umbilical cord while he was trying to establish Utah residency right before an election, that would rightly generate scrutiny. But Grayeyes has spent a lifetime serving in the Navajo Mountain Chapter, on the Navajo Mountain school board, and in various nonprofit roles in Utah, all in accordance with his traditional view of his home place on Piute Mesa. It’s not entirely clear that his ownership of a boarded-up doublewide in Page would allow Grayeyes to easily establish residency in Arizona if he wanted to. After all, if, as Stirba argued, Grayeyes resides in Page, then why would he choose to have an office one hour and twenty minutes away in Tuba City?

A simpler explanation is available. Grayeyes’ Tuba City office is a practical place to take care of administrative tasks while serving the Navajo Mountain community given the remote nature and lack of services in Navajo Mountain itself.

Family members testified that Grayeyes has never applied for a homesite lease in Navajo Mountain (Navajo Nation residents lease land from the federal government as opposed to owning it outright) because he didn’t want there to be any appearance of using his official position curry special favors with the Navajo Nation. If true, the residency dispute that has Grayeyes’ opponents crying corruption is the ironic outcome of Grayeyes’ past attempts to avoid the appearance of corruption.

Also worthy of note is that Grayeyes’ election as county commissioner comes on the heels of three decades of litigation related to Native American voting rights in San Juan County. When Grayeyes and Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy won their respective elections in November, it became the first time in history that Navajo citizens controlled the majority of the commission despite the fact that the population of San Juan County is majority Native American.

Many white residents of San Juan County have openly questioned whether Navajo candidates are fit for office since Navajo Nation residents do not pay property taxes.

For example, Laws himself asked at a town hall meeting in early January, “What happens when you have two commissioners who have never paid taxes? They don’t understand how taxing works. It’s free money. What happens to your property tax when the county is out of money? It goes up.” (Of course, Laws did not mention that the crux of his attorney’s legal argument against Grayeyes rests on the fact that Grayeyes does pay taxes on the doublewide in Page.)

All of these factors need to be taken into account when passing judgement on the Grayeyes dispute. While some Laws supporters want to present Grayeyes’ residency claim as a simple, cynical attempt to use cultural beliefs to skirt the law, the reality of situation is far more complex. Due to the unique geographical location of Navajo Mountain and the particulars of Navajo Nation homeownership, Grayeyes’ case must be viewed in a greater context.

One important test of whether San Juan County residents see Grayeyes as a Utah resident has already taken place. Like Romney, who overwhelmingly won his election in November in part because Utah voters accepted his family ties to Utah, Grayeyes easily won his election despite a previous challenge to his residency. Now it’s up to Judge Don Torgerson to rule on how all of these complexities square with Utah law.

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