ALBUQUERQUE – New Mexico’s Democratic governor says she believes vetting of her Cabinet members is crucial. But with two weeks left in the legislative session, she has yet to submit her pick to lead the state Indian Affairs Department 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 Indian Country.
That's because Mountain, a former San Ildefonso Pueblo governor, once was indicted on charges that included criminal sexual penetration, kidnapping and aggravated battery of a household member. The charges were dropped in 2010, with prosecutors saying they did not have enough evidence to go to trial.
Native American women who spoke to The Associated Press say they've been told by some in their communities to stay quiet about the appointment, but they refuse.
“I think relationships are at risk right now that have taken generations for us to build," said Angel Charley, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women. "And while we understand the pain and division that this is causing, it’s important to remember that it’s not the women who are bringing this up who are causing the division. We are simply highlighting a concern.”
It's much like the narrative surrounding a nationwide movement to confront the disproportionate numbers of missing and slain Indigenous women and how women themselves are being asked to solve a problem they didn't create, said Christina M. Castro, a founding member of the social justice organization Three Sisters Collective.
"We’re not only being tasked with taking this on, but we’re villainized for speaking up,” Castro said.
The governor's office said in a statement Thursday night that it was prioritizing sending appointments for university regents to the Senate during the final days of the legislative session, since regents cannot work without being confirmed.
Mountain still can serve as head of Indian Affairs without confirmation. If no hearing takes place before the Legislature ends March 18, the next likely opportunity for the full Senate to vote on confirming him wouldn't come until January 2024.
A request made a week ago on behalf of the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force to meet with the governor went unanswered, and many state elected officials have remained mum about 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 to recognize the pain and hurt it’s creating and look for other nominees who can do the job,” said Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, a member of the task force. “And there’s plenty of New Mexicans out there from different tribal nations who can do this job."
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 Indigenous people 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 are so often unheard on concerns like this.”
The governor has defended Mountain's nomination, saying those who disagree should respect that charges against him were dismissed. Lujan Grisham spokesperson Maddy Hayden said substantiated allegations against someone in a leadership position would be cause for concern and, likely, disqualification.
“We are certainly not in receipt of any such allegations nor is anyone else, to our knowledge," Hayden wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "We would strongly encourage anyone with substantiated allegations to bring them to light.”
Mountain has not directly addressed the concerns about his nomination, but he has defended himself, telling the online outlet New Mexico in Depth that he dedicated himself to reestablishing connections and confidence among tribal communities.
The Indian Affairs Department declined Friday to share details of Mountain's vision for the agency but pointed to a letter of support from his daughter, Leah Mountain, that was directed to state lawmakers. She described a devoted father who instilled cultural identity, confidence and aspiration in her after her mother left.
She said the allegations against him are false.
“It has been painful for only half of this story to be told,” she wrote.
For some Native American women, trusting the judicial system as the governor has suggested and having a platform from which to raise their concerns have been challenges. Task force members have countless stories about families who are left to search for loved ones when law enforcement didn't.
Having an advocate overseeing Indian Affairs who can relate to survivors and families who are missing relatives would create a pathway for Native women's voices to be heard, said Ashley Sarracino, president of the Laguna Pueblo Federation of Democratic Women.
While she comes from a family that empowers women, not everyone has that support, she said.
“A lot of the women are silent," she said. "A lot of the women experience oppression and, you know, they’re just not willing to speak up,” she said.