SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A coalition of advocates dedicated to stemming the tide of violence and missing persons cases in Indian Country is demanding more transparency from New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, saying there should be greater accountability in the system for vetting state-appointed positions that serve Indigenous communities.
About 30 protesters gathered Friday in the state Capitol rotunda to voice concerns about the Democratic governor’s contested pick to head the state’s Indian Affairs Department. They want the governor to withdraw her appointment of James Mountain, citing charges he once faced.
They were joined by legislators, including Democratic Sen. Shannon Pinto of the Navajo community of Tohatchi. The Navajo Nation president also has said he cannot 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 Stop Violence Against Native Women.
She said Mountain’s appointment has overshadowed a stalled proposal in the Legislature to make crime victims’ reparations funds available to the families of missing and slain Native Americans.
“He knows how much division there is because of his nomination," she said. "Step down.”
Lujan Grisham’s appointment has sent shockwaves through tribal communities. While the governor so far has continued to defend 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 that some of the efforts here are a bit unfair and are very misguided,” Lujan Grisham said Friday at a news conference.
Many in the Democratic-led Legislature have remained mum about the governor’s choice not to push for a hearing, which would offer a public forum for Mountain to be vetted.
A former San Ildefonso Pueblo governor, Mountain was 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.
The governor has said those who disagree should respect that charges against Mountain were dismissed.
“I do think that some of that passion about a zero-tolerance standard is pretty interesting in this regard: dismissed case, old," Lujan Grisham said. "He’s defending himself effectively. I feel terrible for his whole family.”
The coalition has said New Mexico continues to have the highest rate of missing and slain Native American relatives and that “we are at a critical turning 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 hushed whispers about violence that we have not only personally experienced, but that we experience daily in our homes and communities.”
“When we have the courage to speak out, we are often met with blame and stigma, as though we have caused these problems ourselves,” the statement continued.
Aside from recalling Mountain's appointment, the coalition is demanding a rigorous vetting process for all state-appointed positions that serve Indigenous communities and that any nominee with a court record or indictment related to rape or domestic violence be disqualified.
They also are seeking the creation of a community advisory committee to help vet state-appointed tribal leadership.
“We cannot rely solely on the All Pueblo Council of Governors, the Navajo Nation leaders, Apache leaders, and/or Indigenous male state leaders for the vetting of 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 also want a formal apology from Lujan Grisham “for this outrageous nomination” and demanded that an Indigenous woman be appointed as head of the New Mexico Department of Indian Affairs.
Mountain has not directly addressed the concerns about his nomination. In a letter directed at state lawmakers, his 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 still can serve as head of Indian Affairs without confirmation, and the next likely opportunity for the full Senate to vote on confirming him wouldn’t come until January 2024.
Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque.