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.
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.