San Juan County is an expansive tract in southwest Utah where Native Americans make up a majority of the population. But when Rebecca Benally, a member of the Diné (Navajo) people, won a seat on the county commission in 2015, she was the first Native American woman to hold the post.
A big part of her job so far, Benally says, has been to reduce tensions between whites and Native Americans, and improve communications between the two groups.
Benally has taken on a number of other thorny issues as well. She was a vocal opponent of designating 1.9 million acres in the area as the Bears Ears National Monument, a position that put her at odds with other Native American groups. She’s concerned Native Americans will lose control of the lands with the federal designation.
Another priority has been to improve long-neglected roads on the Navajo reservation. Many of the 786 miles of roads on the reservation are still made of dirt, which makes it hard for vehicles like school buses to pass during inclement weather. “Our students miss an average of 10 days of school a year because of roads,” she says. “So [improving them] is my biggest mission and goal.”