Navajo Nation Council passes resolution opposing New Mexico Indian Affairs appointee

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Native advocates, joined by state Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi, gathered at the Roundhouse in March to protest the appointment of James Mountain as Indian Affairs cabinet secretary. They put tape over their mouths to represent their feeling of being silenced. Credit: Bella Davis

The Navajo Nation Council is calling on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to withdraw her appointment of a former governor of San Ildefonso Pueblo as Indian Affairs cabinet secretary. Passed unanimously last week by the tribe’s governing body, the resolution adds to growing opposition to James Mountain as Lujan Grisham’s pick to head the state agency. 

Mountain was indicted in 2008 but never convicted on charges of criminal sexual penetration, kidnapping, and aggravated battery against a household member, leading members of the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force to demand his removal in February. The prosecution dropped the charges in 2010 due to insufficient evidence and the court record was put under seal. 

In passing the resolution, the Navajo Nation Council joins Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren, task force members, and several New Mexico state senators in speaking out against Mountain’s appointment. Nygren wrote in a letter to the governor in February that his people’s voices “are so often unheard on concerns like this.” 

Mountain staying on as secretary, the council resolution states, would “negatively impact the critical work” of the task force, which is housed within the Indian Affairs Department. 

Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley, in a news release, said she understands opposing the appointment “may jeopardize funding from the state to the Navajo Nation, but we cannot place a price tag on the safety and well-being of our Native women, men, LGBTQ community, and children.”

Lujan Grisham “does not plan” to withdraw the appointment, spokesperson Maddy Hayden said in a text to New Mexico In Depth on Thursday. Mountain, through an Indian Affairs spokesperson Thursday, said the work of the department continues to be his top priority.

The governor’s office didn’t submit Mountain for confirmation by the state Senate during this year’s legislative session. It is standard practice for governors to submit nominees to cabinet-level state agencies to the Senate for a public vetting, although cabinet secretaries have served without confirmation before. Hanna Skandera, former Gov. Susana Martinez’s Public Education secretary appointee, led the department for four years before the Senate confirmed her.

The Legislature created the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force in 2019. New Mexico has the most missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the nation, according to a 2020 task force report. Albuquerque ranked second for such cases out of 71 cities the Urban Indian Health Institute surveyed in 2017. Gallup ranked sixth. 

Many task force members are survivors of violence, Chastity Sandoval (Diné), a member and tribal legal advocate for Nambé Pueblo, said in a recent interview. The governor’s office “didn’t take that into consideration.” 

“We are having to relive these personal experiences because of this appointment,” said Celina Garcia (Ohkay Owingeh), a coordinator with the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women. 

More than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, according to a National Institute of Justice study, including 56% who have experienced sexual violence and 55% who have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner. 

Mountain’s appointment was the subject of an emotional task force meeting in February, during which state Sen. Shannon Pinto, a Democrat from the Navajo community of Tohatchi, said she was fighting it. Members said they’d committed to creating a safe space for survivors and building trust with impacted families, and the appointment jeopardized that work. 

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, the sponsor of last week’s resolution, was one of two members who said she was considering resigning. 

“I understand that we don’t have control over that decision, but what control we have is how we create a safe space in this task force and how we want to move forward to the work for the families,” she said at the February meeting. 

Sandoval said while there haven’t been any resignations as far as she knows, she’s worried that people who have made significant contributions will leave the task force. 

“If those people go, I’m scared to see what the outcome will look like,” Sandoval said. “It’s unsettling, it’s disturbing, and it should not be happening.”

Neither Lujan Grisham nor Mountain responded to questions from New Mexico In Depth about how his appointment has affected task force members and how it might affect their work going forward. 

“My main focus and commitment will be to support and promote the goals of all department initiatives, as well as to improve the well-being of our tribal people in New Mexico and to foster more effective state-tribal relations,” Mountain wrote through a spokesperson on Thursday.

He wouldn’t say whether he plans to become the new chair of the task force, a position his predecessor — former Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo — held until her departure in November. Melody Delmar, a special projects coordinator for the department, has served as acting chair since. 

The push to oust Mountain has rallied his defenders who point to his reelection as governor of San Ildefonso Pueblo about eight years after the rape allegation. His daughter, Leah, wrote a letter to lawmakers in support of his confirmation, published in the Los Alamos Daily Post last month, that praised him as a single father who instilled important values and encouraged her to become an independent woman while her mother, who made the allegation of rape against Mountain, was mostly absent from their lives.

Hayden, the governor’s spokesperson, wrote to New Mexico In Depth in February that Mountain has worked with numerous tribal communities for many years “where he has been integral in carrying out many of the top priorities of the pueblos, tribes and nations of New Mexico.” 

The office solicited recommendations from tribal leaders and interviewed seven candidates in total, she said, including other former tribal leaders and judges. She said she was unsure whether the governor’s office consulted with task force members as it searched for a new cabinet secretary. 

“We hope that those who are leveling these concerns would respect the judicial process and acknowledge the results,” Hayden wrote, noting the charges were dropped.

But advocates say the criminal justice system often fails sexual assault and domestic violence survivors, particularly Native women. 

“We do not trust the justice system,” Angel Charley (Laguna), executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, said at a press conference last month at the Roundhouse to protest the appointment. “It is set up to fail us.”

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