SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) – A coalition of advocates dedicated to stemming the tide of violence and missing-persons cases in Indian Country is asking for more transparency from New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, saying there should be more accountability in the system for vetting state-sponsored positions. serve indigenous communities.
About 30 protesters gathered in the rotunda of the state Capitol on Friday to express concern over the Democratic governor’s contested pick to head the state Department of Indian Affairs. They want the governor to withdraw her nomination of James Mountain, citing allegations he once faced.
They were joined by lawmakers, including Democratic Sen. Shannon Pinto of the Tohatchi Navajo community. The president of the Navajo Nation also said he could not support the appointment.
“For so many survivors, when we see James Mountain, we see our abusers,” said Angel Charley, executive director of the Coalition to End Domestic Violence.
She said Mountain’s appointment overshadowed a stalled proposal in the Legislature to make crime victim reparations funds available to the families of missing and murdered Native Americans.
“He knows how divisive his nomination is,” she said. “Get down.”
Lujan Grisham’s appointment sent shockwaves through tribal communities. While the governor has so far continued to defend the mountain, she has yet to submit his nomination to the Senate for confirmation despite the legislative session ending at noon Saturday.
“I appreciate the passion. But I think some of the efforts here are a little unfair and very wrong,” Lujan Grisham said at a press conference on Friday.
Many in the Democratic-led Legislature remained tight-lipped about the governor’s choice not to insist on a hearing, which would have offered a public forum to vet Mountain.
A former governor of San Ildefonso Puebla, Mountain was once 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 didn’t have enough evidence to go to trial.
The governor said those who disagree should respect that the charges against Mountain have been dismissed.
“I think some of that passion for the zero-tolerance standard is pretty interesting in that regard: Case dismissed, dude,” Lujan Grisham said. “He defends effectively. I feel terrible for his whole family.”
The coalition said New Mexico continues to have the highest rate of missing and murdered Native American relatives and that “we are at a critical juncture as an Indigenous people.”
“The fractured culture of violence has normalized behaviors that were once unthinkable in our communities,” the coalition said in a statement. “We are reduced to speaking in hushed whispers about the violence that we have not only personally experienced, but that we experience every day in our homes and communities.
“When we have the courage to speak up, we are often met with guilt and stigma, as if we caused these problems ourselves,” the statement continued.
In addition to revoking Mountain’s appointment, the coalition is demanding a rigorous vetting process for all state-appointed positions serving indigenous communities and that any candidate with a criminal record or conviction related to rape or domestic violence be disqualified.
They are also seeking the creation of a community advisory board to help vet state-appointed tribal leadership.
“We cannot rely solely on the Council of All Pueblo Governors, Navajo Nation leaders, Apache leaders, and/or Native male state leaders to vet candidates, as we have learned over the years that tribal leaders actively participate in the patriarchal culture of protecting perpetrators,” the coalition said.
The groups are also demanding a formal apology from Lujan Grisham “for this outrageous nomination” and demanding that a Native woman be appointed to head the New Mexico Department of Indian Affairs.
Mountain did not directly address concerns about his nomination. In a letter to state lawmakers, his daughter, Leah Mountain, described him as a devoted father who instilled in her a cultural identity, confidence and aspiration after her mother left. She said the allegations against him were false.
Mountain can still serve as Indian Affairs chief without confirmation, and the next likely chance for the full Senate to vote on his confirmation won’t come until January 2024.
Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque.