SANTA FE, NM (AP) — A coalition of advocates dedicated to stemming the tide of violence and missing persons cases in Indian Country is calling for more transparency from New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, saying there should be more accountability in the oversight system state-appointed positions serving indigenous communities.
About 30 protesters gathered in the Capitol rotunda on Friday to express concern over the disputed choice of the Democratic governor to head the state’s Indian affairs department. They want the governor to withdraw his nomination of James Mountain, citing charges he once faced.
They were joined by lawmakers, including Democratic Senator Shannon Pinto of the Navajo community of Tohatchi. Even the president of the Navajo Nation said he could not support the nomination.
“For so many survivors, when we see James Mountain, we see our attackers,” said Angel Charley, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women.
He said Mountain’s appointment overshadowed a proposal stalled in the legislature to make crime victim reparations funds available to the families of missing and killed Native Americans.
“You know how much division there is because of your appointment,” he said. “Resign”.
Lujan Grisham’s appointment has shocked tribal communities. While the governor has so far continued to defend Mountain, he has yet to submit his nomination to the Senate for confirmation despite the legislative session closing at noon on Saturday.
“I appreciate the passion. But I think some of the efforts here are a bit unfair and very misguided,” Lujan Grisham said at a press conference on Friday.
Many in the Democrat-led legislature have remained silent about the governor’s choice not to push for a hearing, which would offer a public forum for scrutiny of Mountain.
A former governor of San Ildefonso Pueblo, Mountain was once indicted on charges including felony sexual penetration, kidnapping and aggravated battery of a family 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 a zero tolerance standard is quite interesting in this regard: case dismissed, old man,” said Lujan Grisham. “He is defending himself effectively. I feel terrible for his entire family.
The coalition said that New Mexico continues to have the highest rate of missing and killed Native American relatives and that “we are at a critical inflection point as an Indigenous people.”
“The pervasive 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 whispers of violence that we have not only experienced personally, but that we experience every day in our homes and communities”.
“When we dare to speak up, we are often faced with blame and stigma, as if we have caused these problems ourselves,” the statement continued.
In addition to recalling Mountain’s nomination, the coalition is calling for a rigorous vetting process for all state-appointed positions serving Indigenous communities and for any candidate with a criminal record or charges related to rape or domestic violence to 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 All Puebloan Board of Governors, Navajo Nation leaders, Apache leaders, and/or Indigenous male state leaders to screen candidates, as we have learned over the years that tribal leaders they actively participate in the patriarchal culture of protecting offenders,” the coalition said.
The groups also want a formal apology from Lujan Grisham “for this outrageous appointment” and have called for an Indigenous woman to be named head of the New Mexico Department of Indian Affairs.
Mountain did not directly address concerns about his nomination. In a letter to state lawmakers, her daughter Leah Mountain described him as a devoted father who instilled cultural identity, confidence and aspiration in her after her mother left. She said the allegations against him are false.
Mountain can still serve as Indian affairs chief without confirmation, and the next likely opportunity for the entire Senate to vote to confirm him won’t come until January 2024.
Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque.