New Mexico’s Democratic governor says she believes vetting her cabinet members is critical. But with two weeks left in the legislative session, she has yet to submit her pick to lead the state Department of Indian Affairs to the Senate for confirmation.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s nomination of James Mountain has sent shockwaves through tribal communities, particularly among advocates dedicated to stemming the tide of violence and missing persons cases in India.
That’s because Mountain, a former governor of San Ildefonso Pueblo, was once indicted on charges that included criminal sexual penetration, kidnapping and battery on a household member. Charges were dropped in 2010, with prosecutors saying they didn’t have enough evidence to go to trial.
Native American women who spoke to The Associated Press say some in their communities have told them to keep quiet about dating, but they refuse.
“I think relationships are at risk right now that took generations to build,” said Angel Charley, executive director of the Coalition to End Violence Against Indigenous Women. “And while we understand the pain and division this causes, it’s important to remember that it’s not the women who report it that causes the division. We’re just pointing out a concern.”
It’s a lot like the narrative surrounding a national movement to address the disproportionate number of missing and murdered indigenous women, and how women themselves are being called upon to solve a problem they didn’t create, said Christina M. Castro, a founding member of the social justice organization Three Three Sisters Collective.
“Not only do we have a duty to take this on, but we are being abused for speaking out,” Castro said.
The governor’s office said in a statement Thursday night that it is prioritizing sending appointments for university regents to the Senate during the final days of the legislative session, as regents cannot work without confirmation.
Mountain can still serve as head of Indian Affairs without confirmation. If a hearing is not held before the Legislature adjourns on March 18, the next possible opportunity for the full Senate to vote on its ratification would not come until January 2024.
A request made a week ago by the state’s Missing and Murdered Native Women and Relatives Task Force to meet with the governor went unanswered, and many state elected officials remained baffled by the governor’s choice not to push for a hearing.
Advocates call the silence deafening.
“It’s really up to the governor at this point to do the right thing and recognize the pain and the hurt he’s causing and look for other candidates who can do the job,” said Navajo Nation Council spokeswoman Amber Kanazbah Crotty, a member of the mission. power. “And there are many New Mexicans out there from different tribal nations who can do this work.”
Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren outlined his concerns in a letter sent to Lujan Grisham this week.
“Governor, I greatly appreciate your strong advocacy on behalf of the Navajo and Native peoples of New Mexico and across the country,” he wrote. “However, on this particular issue, I must stand with our leadership and my people whose voices so often go unheard on concerns like this.”
The governor defended Mountain’s appointment, saying those who disagree should respect that the charges against him were dismissed. Lujan Grisham’s spokeswoman, Maddy Hayden, said substantiated allegations against someone in a leadership position would be cause for concern and, possibly, disqualification.
“We certainly do not receive such allegations nor does anyone else, to our knowledge,” Hayden wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “We would strongly encourage anyone with substantiated allegations to come forward.”
Mountain has not directly addressed concerns about his candidacy, but has defended himself, telling online outlet New Mexico in Depth that he is dedicated to restoring connections and trust between tribal communities.
The Department of Indian Affairs declined Friday to share details about Mountain’s vision for the agency, but pointed to a letter of support from his daughter, Leah Mountain, to state lawmakers. She described a devoted father who instilled in her cultural identity, confidence and ambition after her mother left.
He said the charges against him are false.
“It was painful to have only half the story told,” he wrote.
For some Native American women, trusting the justice system as suggested by the governor and having a platform from which to voice their concerns have been challenges. Task force members have countless stories of families being left to search for loved ones while law enforcement did not.
Having an advocate overseeing Indian Affairs who can relate to survivors and families with missing relatives would create a pathway for indigenous women’s voices to be heard, said Ashley Sarracino, president of the Laguna Pueblo Federation of Democratic Women.
Although she comes from a family that empowers women, not everyone has that support, she said.
“Many of the women are silent,” she said. “A lot of the women are experiencing oppression and, you know, they’re just not willing to talk,” she said.