SALT LAKE CITY — Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez praised Utah leaders Monday for standing behind a federal law that urges keeping Native American children with their own tribal members should they need adoption or foster care placement.
"This is a model for not only the Navajo Nation but throughout Indian country," Nez said in reaction to the three-way endorsement of an interl-local agreement among the Navajo Nation, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes.
The signing event an interlocal agreement took place in the auditorium of the State Office Building during American Indian Caucus Day and comes even in the midst of legal challenges to the Indian Child Welfare Act, asserting it is unconstitutional because it elevates a child's race over their best interest.
A federal judge last October struck down the decades-old law after the state of Texas argued racial bias in the case of a non-native couple who sued for the right to adopt a Native American toddler they had fostered for more than a year.
The Texas state court denied their adoption petition based on the federal law that gives preference to Native American families in such circumstances.
The Utah Attorney General's Office filed a friend of the court brief in support of the federal law.
Tough negotiations over the last couple years resulted in Utah's Department of Human Services pledging to continue to keep Navajo children with tribal members as much as possible when it comes to state custody cases.
The daylong caucus event was a chance for leaders and representatives of the eight sovereign tribes in Utah to discuss specific wish lists or complaints regarding their relationship with the state in general and Herbert's office in particular.
Among issues brought up by various tribes:
- Shoshone Nation Chairman Darren Parry said the tribe is hoping Utah lawmakers give $1 million to help pay for an interpretive center at the Bear River Massacre site in southeast Idaho.
- Rupert Steele of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Nation wants more state assistance to deal with "years and years and years" of persistent problems that include fixing a road that is dangerous to travel for Goshute students.
- Navajo Nation representatives noted the state's financial efforts to boost teacher retention and training in San Juan County, but said more needs to happen. In addition, the state could do more to financially participate in issues related to economic development, improvement in roads and other infrastructure needs.
Tribal representatives did note the first phase of funding had been secured for the extension of broadband into Bluff and areas like Montezuma Creek.
Charlaine Tso, the newly elected council delegate for the Bears Ears region of the Navajo Nation, told Herbert the state should support preservation of sacred lands through the Bears Ears National Monument designation, which was reversed in December of 2017, and to help address the ongoing racial challenges playing out in San Juan County politics.
Two members of the Navajo nation were elected to positions on the San Juan County Commission, but there have been unsuccessful legal challenges raised over allegations related to one member's out-of-state residency.
On Tuesday night, the San Juan County Commission is scheduled to take a vote on a number of resolutions, including one urging restoration of the Bears Ears National Monument and rescission of any resolutions by the previous commission that supported its dismantlement.
The commission is also set to vote on the reversal and withdrawal of any position or legal documents that supported the monument reduction.