Appointment of Native American leader in New Mexico in limbo

ALBUKERC, New Mexico (AP) — The Democratic governor of New Mexico says she believes vetting her cabinet members is critical. But with two weeks left before the legislative session, she has yet to submit her nominee to head the state Department of Indian Affairs to the Senate for approval.

The nomination of James Mountain by Gov. Michelle Loujan Grisham sent shockwaves through tribal communities, especially among supporters of the fight against violence and missing-person cases in Indian Country.

That’s because Mountain, the former governor of San Ildefonso Pueblo, was once accused of criminal sexual penetration, kidnapping, and aggravated battery of a family member. The charges were dropped in 2010 and prosecutors said they did not have enough evidence for a trial.

Native American women who spoke to The Associated Press say they have been told by some in their communities to remain silent about the appointment, but they are refusing.

“I think the relationship right now is in jeopardy that has taken us generations to build,” said Angel Charlie, executive director of the Coalition to End Violence Against Indigenous Women. “And while we understand the pain and division that this causes, it is important to remember that it is not the women who raise this issue who are causing the division. We’re just paying attention to the problem.”

It is very similar to the narrative surrounding the nationwide movement against the disproportionate number of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and how women themselves are being asked to solve a problem they did not create,” said Cristina M. Castro, Member founder of the organization “Social Justice”. organization “Collective of three sisters”.

“Not only have we been tasked with doing this, we have also been accused of speaking out,” Castro said.

The governor’s office said in a statement Thursday night that it is prioritizing the appointment of university regents to the Senate in the closing days of the legislative session, as regents cannot serve without approval.

Mountain can still be Chief of Indian Affairs without confirmation. If hearings are not held before the end of the Legislative Assembly on March 18, the next likely opportunity for the entire Senate to vote on its approval will not be until January 2024.

A request made a week ago on behalf of the State Task Force on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives to meet with the governor went unanswered, and many state elected officials remain silent on the governor’s decision not to press for a hearing.

Lawyers call the silence deafening.

“For now, the governor needs to do the right thing and acknowledge the pain and harm he’s creating and look for other candidates who can do the job,” Navajo National Council delegate Amber Kanazba Crotty, a member of the task, said. force. “And there are a lot of new Mexicans from different tribes who can do the job.”

Navajo President Buu Nygren outlined his concerns in a letter sent to Lujan Grisham this week.

“Governor, I greatly appreciate your strong defense on behalf of the Navajo and First Nations of New Mexico and the entire country,” he wrote. “However, on this particular issue, I must support our leadership and my people, whose voices so often go unheard on such issues.”

The governor defended Mountain’s candidacy, saying those who disagree should respect that the charges against him have been dropped. Lujan Grisham’s spokeswoman Maddie Hayden said that justified allegations against anyone in a leadership position could be cause for concern and likely disqualification.

“To the best of our knowledge, neither we nor anyone else has received any such allegations,” Hayden wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “We strongly encourage anyone with valid allegations to disclose them.”

Mountain did not directly respond to concerns about his nomination, but he defended himself by telling New Mexico in Depth that he was dedicated to rebuilding ties and trust between tribal communities.

The Department of Indian Affairs on Friday declined to share details about Mountain’s vision for the agency, but pointed to a letter of support from his daughter, Leah Mountain, that was sent to state lawmakers. She described a devoted father who instilled in her cultural identity, confidence and drive after her mother passed away.

She stated that the accusations against him are false.

“It hurt that only half of this story was told,” she wrote.

For some Native American women, trust in the judiciary, as suggested by the governor, and having a platform from which to voice their concerns, was a challenge. Task Force members have countless stories of families being forced to search for their loved ones while law enforcement fails to do so.

Ashley Sarracino, president of the Laguna Pueblo Federation of Democratic Women, said having an Indian case lawyer who can communicate with survivors and families of missing relatives will create an opportunity for indigenous women’s voices to be heard.

While she comes from a family that empowers women, she said, not everyone has that support.

“Many women are silent,” she said. “A lot of women experience oppression and, you know, they just don’t want to talk about it,” she said.

— SUSAN MONTOYA BRIAN Associated Press

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