Indigenous families with missing and murdered relatives protest disbanding of state task force, get apology from governor’s spokeswoman

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Indigenous families with missing and murdered loved ones protest on Oct. 27, 2023 at the New Mexico State Capitol over the disbanding of a task force created to find solutions. Courtesy: Darlene Gomez

A spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham apologized to Indigenous families with missing and murdered loved ones last Friday during a protest at the Roundhouse over the abrupt ending of a task force created to find solutions to disproportionate rates of violence Indigenous people face. 

Lujan Grisham’s administration disbanded the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force after its last meeting in May without publicly announcing its decision. Some task force members and affected families think there is so much work to do that the group is necessary and were disappointed to hear of its end.  

Protesters talked with Lujan Grisham’s spokeswoman, Maddy Hayden, in the lobby of the governor’s office on the fourth floor of the Roundhouse, telling her they feel left behind and want to be included in the administration’s planning, according to a video viewed by New Mexico In Depth.

Rose Yazzie, whose daughter Ranelle Rose Bennett disappeared from the Navajo Nation in 2021, told Hayden about speaking with Lujan Grisham early last year at an event where the governor signed two bills the task force pushed for.

“She hugged me and I hugged her and she promised us that the task force was going to start and continue,” Yazzie, holding back tears, told Hayden. “She took that away from me, us families. How can she do that?”

Darlene Gomez, a task force member and attorney who represents impacted families, asked Hayden how she would describe what happened to the group. Hayden said it met the objectives laid out in an executive order the governor issued in 2021, and now, “the state and other folks on the ground” will carry out its recommendations. 

But that answer didn’t satisfy Gomez. She pointed out to Hayden that the task force achieved the objectives laid out in the order — presenting legislation for the 2022 legislative session and developing a state response plan — in the summer of 2022 but the state kept funding it for another year. 

“Why would you give us hope and make us believe that this was going to go on year after year?” Gomez asked.

The governor’s office didn’t answer several questions from New Mexico In Depth earlier this month, including about why the administration kept the task force going through May.

The task force’s disbanding came a few months after some members denounced Lujan Grisham’s appointment of former San Ildefonso Pueblo Gov. James Mountain in February to lead the department, which housed the task force.

“We come here on our own money. We don’t receive nonprofit money. We don’t receive money from the state,” Gomez said. “And we continue to look and look. But you have to give us hope. And the way that you did it, without a press release, without telling these families, it was wrong.”

Hayden apologized for the lack of communication about the administration’s plans going forward. 

“I think that was a shortcoming of ours,” Hayden said. “We did not do a good job making it clear what the next steps were, making it clear that we want to continue to involve you all, your voices, and that the work is going to continue. And so I apologize for that. That should’ve been handled better.”

Hayden told the group she would reach out to everyone who left their contact information after they pressed her for a meeting. After talking with Hayden, the group marched in protest to the Santa Fe Plaza. 

In an interview Monday, Gomez said she and the people she represents don’t feel listened to.  

“It’s constantly the families who are in charge of advocating, putting pressure on law enforcement, putting pressure on government,” she said. “And then even after all of this, we have to follow up. We have to be the ones that push.” 

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