Lawmakers want attorney general to create new task force on missing and murdered Indigenous people

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). Five New Mexico lawmakers want the state attorney general to establish a task force focused on missing and murdered Indigenous people. 

They’ve made the request via Senate Joint Memorial 2, which they introduced this week. The memorial puts on display the disagreement some lawmakers have with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s quiet shuttering last year of a task force dedicated to finding solutions to what’s been identified as a national crisis. Indigenous women in the state, according to the memorial, have the highest homicide rate among all ethnic groups. Because this year’s 30-day session is reserved for putting together the state budget in addition to whatever priorities the governor pinpoints, the lawmakers were limited to proposing a memorial, which is not legally binding. 

Task force members decried the governor’s disbanding of their group last year, telling New Mexico In Depth in October their work was just beginning.

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.

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.

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.

Native students are expelled in New Mexico far more than any other group. This school district is ground zero for the disparity.

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with New Mexico In Depth. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published. And sign up here for journalism from New Mexico In Depth. One chilly March afternoon, dozens of Navajo children spilled out of their middle school to play in the snow before heading home. Students in jackets and parkas can be seen on grainy security camera footage chasing and pushing one another to the ground.

How We Found the School District Responsible for Much of New Mexico’s Outsized Discipline of Native Students

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with New Mexico In Depth. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published. And sign up here for journalism from New Mexico In Depth. New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica used data from the New Mexico Public Education Department to analyze student discipline rates across the state. The news outlets found that one district, Gallup-McKinley County Schools, played an outsized role in the disproportionate discipline of Native American students in the state. That district enrolls more Native students than any other public school district in the United States and a quarter of Native students in the state. Through public records requests, the news organizations obtained a spreadsheet of all disciplinary incidents reported by school districts to the state Public Education Department.