Searching for answers at Missing in New Mexico Day

Darian Nevayaktewa went missing 15 years ago from northeastern Arizona. He was 19 and living in New Mexico with his mother, Lynette Pino. But it was during a summer visit to the Hopi reservation where his father lived that he disappeared after going to a gathering and never coming home. 

Pino hasn’t stopped looking for answers about what happened to her son. 

“We take it one day at a time and just pray that one of these days something will come out,” Pino said. 

Her search brought her from Tesuque Pueblo to Albuquerque on Sunday for the second annual Missing in New Mexico Day. Nearly 200 Native Americans are missing from the state and the Navajo Nation, according to an FBI list last updated in November. While geared toward people missing from New Mexico, Pino, who also attended last year, said the event provides face-to-face conversations with law enforcement and information about resources like search and rescue teams. After winter, she hopes to be able to organize another search for her son. 

Over the past decade and a half, she’s struggled to get the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which still lists her son’s case as open on its website, to communicate with her. 

From unanswered calls to dismissed concerns and victim blaming, dealing with law enforcement is one of the main obstacles in getting justice for missing or murdered relatives, Indigenous families say.

New Mexico isn’t doing enough to end missing and murdered Indigenous people crisis, lawmakers say

Lawmakers and advocates this week said an advisory council on missing and murdered Indigenous people Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration announced Tuesday isn’t a good replacement for a task force disbanded earlier this year, and questioned why state officials aren’t asking for more money to confront the crisis. Asked by lawmakers Tuesday about what the state is doing, Indian Affairs Secretary-designate James Mountain pointed in part to the advisory council, which he said will hold state agencies accountable as they carry out recommendations made last year by the defunct task force. 

But Mountain’s update didn’t satisfy lawmakers or Indigenous families who have lost loved ones. 

“We’re fighting for our families,” Vangie Randall-Shorty told Mountain and other officials during public comment of the Legislature’s Indian Affairs Committee in Albuquerque. Her son, Zachariah Juwaun Shorty, was found dead from gunshot wounds on the Navajo Nation in July 2020. “These are human beings and you don’t take this serious. Come on, get it together for us.

Lawmakers gave the attorney general $1 million in 2022 to help find missing Indigenous people. The money hasn’t been spent. 

Nearly two years after state lawmakers set aside $1 million for the New Mexico Attorney General’s office to create an online portal to track cases of missing Indigenous people, and potentially give tribes grants to help in that search, the office hasn’t spent the money. Lawmakers in early 2022 considered the need so great they attached an emergency clause to the legislation, meaning then-Attorney General Hector Balderas could have started spending the money that February instead of months later, the usual practice for most new laws. 

An audit of programs completed earlier this year, though, revealed the funds weren’t used while Balderas was in office, according to Lauren Rodriguez, communications director for Balderas’ successor, Raúl Torrez. Balderas couldn’t be reached for comment. 

Despite Torrez taking over more than 10 months ago, the money continues to sit untouched. Part of the reason, according to Rodriguez, is that about six months after lawmakers appropriated the money for the attorney general’s office, the FBI created a database of Indigenous people missing from New Mexico and the Navajo Nation, to which all law enforcement agencies, including tribal, can submit information. But other provisions in the statute haven’t been met, either.

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

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.

NM Indian Affairs secretary wants to create bureau for missing and murdered Indigenous people

James Mountain, Cabinet Secretary Designate of the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department, speaks during American Indian Day at the State Capitol on Feb. 3, 2023. Image by Bella Davis. The Indian Affairs Department wants about $350,000 to continue to address a crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people in New Mexico, Secretary-Designate James Mountain told the Legislative Finance Committee on Tuesday. The money, if approved by state lawmakers, would pay for four full-time employees and build the beginnings of a bureau, Mountain told the legislators on the committee, which plays a critical role in writing the state budget.

New Mexico pulls plug on missing and murdered Indigenous people task force

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration has quietly ended a state task force created to find solutions to a crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people. The group hasn’t met since May, a few months after several members publicly opposed Lujan Grisham’s nomination of former San Ildefonso Pueblo Gov. James Mountain to lead the Indian Affairs Department, which housed the task force. “We were really making some great headway,” said Cheryl Yazzie (Diné), one of several task force members who believes the group’s work had just begun. “We just seem to have kind of stalled, ran out of gas.”

A department spokesperson did not answer a question Monday about whether Mountain had communicated with the group about its future. Two task force members New Mexico In Depth spoke with in the past week said they hadn’t heard anything.

On the Navajo Nation, a daughter yearns for her mother, missing for five years

Julia Vicente always walked the same route home from visiting her friend. She’d traverse about a mile of Shiprock, a town on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico’s northwestern corner, along a dirt road through a neighborhood, bordered by hills and an irrigation canal on one side and a busy highway on the other. She’d turn onto a well-worn path that cuts around and through a few fields before coming out behind a gas station. She’d cross the highway. From there, her house was straight down a tree-lined street.

Crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people brings federal commission to Albuquerque

Savanna Greywind. Daisy Mae Heath. Ashlynne Mike.The reading aloud of those names and five other missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls followed by a moment of silence opened a three-day hearing of the Not Invisible Act Commission in Albuquerque on Wednesday. 

The federal commission — made up of tribal leaders, law enforcement, service providers, impacted families, and survivors — has traveled the country this year, visiting Oklahoma, Alaska, Arizona, Minnesota and California to hear testimony from people most affected by the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people. 

Testimony gathered in those places and in Albuquerque this week and Montana next month will inform a final report due in October. Its purpose is to help Congress, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland improve how federal, state and local government agencies respond to the crisis. Confusion among governments over jurisdiction and a lack of dollars and dedicated personnel often impede investigations, many advocates and law enforcement officials say.“The families are tired,” Amber Kanazbah Crotty, a commissioner and Navajo Nation Council delegate, said.

Navajo Nation Council passes resolution opposing New Mexico Indian Affairs appointee

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.

Native advocates for missing and murdered Indigenous people denounce Lujan Grisham’s appointment to lead Indian Affairs

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s appointment of a former San Ildefonso Pueblo governor to lead the state’s Indian Affairs Department could be in peril as members of the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force, and a Navajo state senator, say they will fight his nomination.The appointment of James R. Mountain to head an agency tasked with addressing violence against Native American women despite a rape charge against him 15 years ago, later dismissed, provoked outrage and sometimes tearful reactions from members during a task force meeting on Wednesday. The task force is one of four initiatives prominently highlighted on the agency’s website. 

Two members were considering resigning from the task force if Mountain is confirmed, they said, and other members supported seeking a meeting with Lujan Grisham to protest Mountain’s nomination.“Our governor of the state needs to know that we are not OK with this,” Nambé Pueblo victim/legal advocate Chastity Sandoval said. 

On Thursday, Lujan Grisham’s Director of Communications Maddy Hayden said the governor does not intend to withdraw Mountain’s nomination. 

“We hope that those who are leveling these concerns would respect the judicial process and acknowledge the results,” Hayden wrote over email. Mountain’s appointment, announced by the governor on Feb. 3, must be confirmed by the state Senate while in session. The 2023 legislative session ends in three weeks, on March 18.  

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty said the task force committed to create a safe space for sexual assault survivors and build trust with families of missing and murdered Indigenous people, and expressed dismay over the nomination.“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,” Crotty said.