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.
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.
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.
New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez said he is ready to “test the limits” of whether the state constitution gives him the authority to assume control of the state’s defense in the 2018 Yazzie-Martinez court case, but hopes it doesn’t come to that. “That is something we will do if we have to, but again my hope in this is that we start having conversations,” Torrez said during an on-camera interview with New Mexico In Depth and New Mexico In Focus (NMiF) on Thursday.
Last month, Torrez announced his intention to take over the landmark case due to the “slow progress” by the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in presenting a plan to reform the state’s public schools. Then-state District Court Judge Sarah Singleton ruled in 2018 — before her death the following year — that the state of New Mexico had violated the educational rights of Native American, English language-learning, disabled and low-income children. In response to Torrez on Friday afternoon, Caroline Sweeney, a spokesperson for the governor, said: “We have never challenged the AG’s authority to represent the state. It is our understanding that the Attorney General has not had any conversations with leadership at the Public Education Department, and we would be happy to brief him on the exhaustive work the Department has undertaken to improve education in New Mexico.”
If the governor does decide to dispute Torrez’s bid to take over the case, it remains unclear who would settle the question, although the courts are a likely venue.
New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez is opening an investigation into disproportionately harsh punishment of Native American children by Gallup McKinley County Schools.
New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica reported in December that Native students are expelled from New Mexico public schools at a much higher rate than other children, and that Gallup McKinley, with the largest Native student population of any public school district in the U.S., is largely responsible.
The district, which includes large swaths of the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico, enrolls a quarter of the state’s Native students but was responsible for at least three-quarters of Native expulsions, according to student discipline data. The district’s annual expulsion rate was 4.6 per 1,000 students, at least 10 times as high as the rest of the state during the four school years ending in 2020.
Superintendent Mike Hyatt disputed those findings, claiming his district misreported long-term suspensions to the state Public Education Department (PED) as expulsions. But Gallup McKinley’s rate of student removals from school for 90 days or longer, regardless of what those removals were called, remained far higher than the rest of the state, an analysis by the news outlets confirmed.
Gallup McKinley officials did not respond this week to questions about Torrez’s intention to investigate the district’s discipline disparities. The Attorney General’s office has traditionally defended public bodies accused of wrongdoing, rather than investigate them. Torrez, who took office in January, expressed dismay that it’s taken this long for the Attorney General’s office to investigate agencies and school districts suspected of violating New Mexicans’ civil rights.
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.
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.
We wrote this story in plain language. Plain language means it is easier to read for some people. This is a guide to school discipline in New Mexico and Gallup-McKinley County Schools. You can print and share a short copy of this guide.
This guide is part of a project by ProPublica and New Mexico In Depth.
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A school bus takes students home in rural New Mexico. Image: Marjorie Childress/New Mexico In Depth
New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez wants the Legislature to make explicit his power to investigate possible civil rights violations in New Mexico, with a focus first on children, including racial disparities in school discipline and problems at the state’s troubled child welfare department. Torrez cited recent reports of a “pattern of disparate penalties or discipline meted out to various groups, particularly Native American students,” as well as “some very serious issues” at the state Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) to explain why he has urged the Legislature to create a civil rights division within the Attorney General’s office.
“We need to get directly involved in protecting the civil rights of our citizens,” Torrez said in a February interview with New Mexico In Depth. “Our first priority will be looking at children.”
New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica reported in December that Native American students are expelled from New Mexico’s public schools far more frequently than other student groups, in large part due to practices at the Gallup-McKinley County Schools district. Gallup-McKinley, which enrolls more Native students than any other public school district in the country, has expelled children at least 10 times as often as the rest of the state in recent years.
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.