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.

Photo Essay: Indigenous Women’s Day celebrates female leadership and resilience while spotlighting ongoing struggles

Over 100 people gathered at the Roundhouse on Saturday for the annual Indigenous Women’s Day, starting with a prayer walk through O’Ga P’Ogeh, the Tewa word for Santa Fe that the event’s organizers used, meaning “white shell water place.” It was the third year the event was held in person after pausing during the pandemic. 

“It is a day to celebrate because we are here, we have our young ladies here to show us how beautiful life can be, that they have hope, that they have dreams,” Sen. Shannon Pinto, a Democrat from Tohatchi and member of the Navajo Nation, told the crowd. “We are resilient, we are tough. We can get the work done if we have to.” 

Lawmakers and community organizers spoke about the importance of having Native women in leadership positions, as well as the ongoing struggle against colonialism. Speakers also touched on violence against Native women, environmental issues, and abortion rights. The following photo essay was created by Bella Davis for New Mexico in Depth.

Native leaders say tribal education trust fund would be game changer

Education programs run by Native American tribes in New Mexico rely in part on money from the state, but accessing those dollars makes it difficult to complete all of the work they envision.Tribal leaders and advocates have long lobbied for a change. This year they want to make it happen.Each year, tribes can apply for grants, and if their applications are approved, they must spend the money first and then submit documentation to the state for reimbursement. 

On paper, it sounds straightforward. But in reality, sometimes tribes can’t spend down all the money by an artificial deadline. In fiscal year 2020-2021, 22 tribes received grants under the Indian Education Act but only two requested reimbursement for the full amount they were awarded. 

It’s a cycle that repeats year after year, hampering their ability to realize the vision of educating their own children. 

With state lawmakers heading into the 2023 legislative session with a multi-billion dollar surplus, Rep. Derrick Lente, a Democrat from Sandia Pueblo, said he will introduce legislation to create a $50 million tribal education trust fund that would provide tribes automatic funding every year. 

Tribes would use annual interest earned on trust fund money for language revitalization efforts, resources such as wi-fi, and career readiness programs, among other priorities. It would give tribes greater autonomy, Lente said.

Indian Affairs Committee wants $3 million for Attorney General work on missing and murdered Indigenous people cases

The Attorney General’s Office has made advances this year in addressing the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people (MMIP), but it needs dedicated funding from the Legislature to keep it up, Mark Probasco, deputy director of the office’s Special Prosecutions Division, told the Indian Affairs Committee on Thursday. 

The legislative committee didn’t argue, passing a motion to recommend inclusion of $3 million in the state budget for the office to continue its work on a nationwide issue that’s gained increased attention in New Mexico in recent years. 

A state task force published a response plan in May with a number of recommendations, although what legislative action might come next is unclear. 

There are at least 192 Indigenous people missing throughout New Mexico and the Navajo Nation, according to a list the FBI last updated in October. State officials and lawmakers say that’s likely an undercount. 

Senate Bill 12, signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in February, created a specialist position in the AG’s Office and allocated $1 million to a grant program aimed at establishing a network to support efforts by tribal nations to identify and find Indigenous people who are missing. 

An additional $1 million for at least one full-time specialist didn’t make it into the final version of the bill. As a result, the AG’s Office has been drawing resources from other areas, Probasco told the committee. 

“It’s one thing for the state to say that it is committed towards this important work,” Probasco said. “We do the best with the resources that we do have, but the reality is that in order for us to maximize the law that has been passed and to make sure that we give these families the best chance at moving forward, it has to be better funded.” 

Since February, the office has assisted in prosecutions, helped compile the FBI list, built partnerships with other law enforcement agencies, and collaborated with the New Mexico Press Association to offer training on how to humanely cover MMIP cases, Probasco said. 

Probasco pointed to the murder of Cecelia B. Finona (Diné). After being reported missing in 2019, the 59-year-old Farmington resident was found dead in 2021. 

Jerry Jay was prosecuted with help from the AG’s Office and pled guilty in September to first-degree kidnapping and second-degree murder.