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Native American tribes, Utah government seek collaboration at annual summit

Posted at 4:39 PM, Jul 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-28 19:39:40-04

SALT LAKE CITY  — Members of Utah's sovereign Native American tribes and Governor Spencer Cox's administration met to discuss issues and ways to collaborate.

The Governor's Native American Summit took place on Thursday at the University of Utah, bringing together government agencies, community groups and tribal members.

"To see all the people come to unite especially after COVID here, is really refreshing," said Larry Cespooch, a spiritual leader in the Ute Tribe.

The summit began with a Hopi butterfly dance, praying for rain in the ongoing drought. It is an issue that tribal members are keenly aware of.

"The drought situation is a huge concern. Lake Powell is losing a huge amount of water," said Mark Freeland, a member of the 24th Navajo Nation Council.

Leaders of the state's many tribes met privately with Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson to discuss issues and ways they can work together to find solutions. Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah Chair Corrina Bow told FOX 13 News she discussed the Indian Child Welfare Act, among other things.

"We really need to make sure that’s passed. Our water rights is another," she said.

Lt. Gov. Henderson, who has been traveling the state and visiting tribal lands, said every tribe has different issues.

"There are some issues we’re not going to agree on. There’s going to be some contention on issues. But I'm hopeful it can be contention on issues, not a contentious relationship in general," she told FOX 13 News.

Some issues the state of Utah seeks to work jointly with the tribes on. The Navajo Nation would like to see a road built connecting a portion of southeastern Utah, Freeland said, saving people a drive of several hours. The state has also been working with the Navajo Nation to help get water, power and other utilities to the community of Westwater.

Progress has been made. Earlier this week, the Blanding City Council voted 4-1 to support a memorandum of understanding to help connect residents to utilities.

Seminars at Thursday's summit focused on things like health care and access to justice. One poignant event discussed abuses at boarding schools, where Native American children were taken from their homes and stripped of their language and culture.

"We're hoping people will start healing. Healing comes from talking about our stories, sharing our stories and there will be a repercussion of goodness and not the atrocities we experienced," said Gayle Dawes, who attended one of the schools in the state.

Added Rose Jakub: "We have been through a lot, but yet we have persevered."

Members of some tribes at Thursday's summit did point out celebrations surrounding the Pioneer Day holiday that have not acknowledged Native Americans, who were here first.

"If you’re going to have a celebration you need to recognize the first people, as well as all those that followed," said Cesspooch.

Asked if he had a sense there was a willingness to do that, Cesspooch told FOX 13 News: "With this governor? Yes."

Lt. Gov. Henderson said the state would continue to find ways to work together with tribes.

"I’ve been working hard, the governor’s been working really hard to make sure the tribes know our door is open," she said.

Also at Thursday's summit, University of Utah President Taylor Randall announced plans for a major expansion of scholarships for students from the state's eight recognized tribes to attend the school. Finances present a major hurdle for Native American students to attend college. Currently, roughly 120 students attending the U self-identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native. Randall said the university would also waive application fees for first-time, first-year Native American students from Utah.