Controversial Indian Affairs secretary leaving agency

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Fund for Indigenous Journalists: Reporting on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two Spirit and Transgender People (MMIWG2T). After a tumultuous tenure as Indian Affairs Secretary-designate, James Mountain is departing the agency to join Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office as her senior policy advisor for tribal affairs, her spokeswoman announced Friday. Deputy Secretary Josett Monette will replace Mountain as Indian Affairs cabinet secretary. 

Mountain’s departure comes about 10 months after several members of a state task force on missing and murdered Indigenous people — housed in the Indian Affairs Department — denounced his appointment. Since then, the governor has steadfastly rebuffed demands from task force members and some state lawmakers to replace Mountain.It was unclear why Mountain departed and whose decision it was: Mountain’s or the governor’s. Cabinet secretaries serve at the pleasure of the governor.

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.

New Mexico AG says he’s going after school discipline and Yazzie-Martinez to protect children

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.

Attorney General to Investigate School Discipline at Gallup McKinley Schools

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.