When Europeans landed on American shores, they brought with them ideals of personal, religious and political freedoms.
And as Native Americans quickly discovered, they also brought fatal diseases, unprecedented greed and an oppressive system of government. At least that remains the perspective of many Indians.After 400 years of colonialization, democracy remains a foreign concept to many Native Americans, especially those who live on the isolated Navajo Indian Reservation in southeastern Utah.
"Traditionally, there has been extremely low voter participation in elections on the part of Utah Navajos," said Indian rights activist Jean Melton. "The white man has more than 200 years of experience with democracy; the Indians (in Utah) have had only since 1957."
That was the year the Utah Legislature extended voting rights to all Native Americans after the Utah Supreme Court refused to do so. Since that time, Native Americans living in Utah have yet to exert any real political muscle, despite holding a population edge in San Juan County.
Interest in politics rarely goes beyond the tribal headquarters in Window Rock, Ariz., and the corruption-plagued Navajo Tribal Council, which has primacy over most government matters on the reservation.
"They've been so used to tribal government, whereas with the county and the state, they've always seen that as an outside government," said San Juan County Commissioner Mark Maryboy, a Navajo and the first Native American elected to such a public office in Utah. "Plus, they didn't see anything tangible from the county."
And because these people have yet to organize politically, they continue to be ignored by the state, the county and their own tribe, despite the millions of dollars of tax revenue generated by oil wells on the Utah portion of the reservation.
"As more Native Americans become conscious of the voting process, the more politicians at all levels of government will be willing to listen to their concerns," Melton said.
On Saturday, volunteers began a registration crusade in San Juan County to register as many of the 1,000 unregistered Native Americans living there as possible. An estimated 12,000 people live in San Juan County, of which 6,700 are Navajos - potentially enough to determine the outcome of a county election.
There are currently 5,000 total registered voters in San Juan County, with an estimated 1,000 more - most of whom reside on the reservation - who could be registered before Election Day in November.
"By registering them and educating them on the election process, we hope they will participate more in the process," said Melton, a leader in the registration campaign.
About 50 people from the Salt Lake area have volunteered for the registration drive. They, in turn, will be joined by about 30 Navajo-speaking volunteers in an effort funded and coordinated by the Navajo Tribal Election Office and Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, among others.
San Juan County has also pledged to contribute to the registration drive if participants will register voters countywide, not just on the reservation.
Volunteers will remain on the reservation until June 22, looking for people on various lists of potential voters and stopping at other houses and hogans along the way. "We know we don't have everybody on the lists," Melton said.
Technically, the registration drive is non-partisan, though Melton and others pushing the registration campaign are also involved in a political campaign to elect five Native American candidates - all of them Democrats - to San Juan County posts. Some suggest that registrants are even being told who to vote for - a violation of law.