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MMIWR advocates work to stop confirmation of Indian Affairs secretary-designate

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.
Bella Davis
New Mexico In Depth
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.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced earlier this month the appointment of the former governor of Pueblo de San Ildefonso James R. Mountain to lead the state’s Department of Indian Affairs. As he awaits confirmation by the state Senate in the remaining weeks of the legislative session, New Mexico In Depth’s Bella Davis reports Indigenous women leaders are fighting his nomination.

BELLA DAVIS: James Mountain was accused of rape in 2007 and arrested. He was indicted on charges of criminal sexual penetration, kidnapping, and aggravated battery against a household member the following year. And then, in 2010, the charges were dropped because the prosecution had insufficient evidence to proceed to trial, and court records were then sealed.

KUNM: Now the state's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force is an initiative of the department that Mountain would be leading. You report that Mountain's appointment, and his previous rape charge, came up in their most recent meeting. What were members' reactions?

DAVIS: A number of members were outraged and they decided to table the agenda for the meeting to discuss Mountain's appointment. It wasn't something, as far as I know, that they were actually planning to talk about, and a member brought it up. Two members even said they were considering resigning from the task force if Mountain's appointment goes through. You know, they talked a lot about how the task force is a safe space for sexual assault survivors and how, since the task force was created by the Legislature in 2019, they've worked really hard to build trust with families of missing and murdered Indigenous people. So, they're concerned about all of that being in jeopardy if Mountain were to become the chair of the task force.

KUNM: So, the Secretary of Indian Affairs would chair that task force?

DAVIS: That's what people are anticipating because the former Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo was the task force chair before she left the department. But I think there's this idea that, even if Mountain weren't to become the new chair, that he's not suitable to become secretary at all, is kind of what I gathered from the meeting.

KUNM: And so, what next steps do the MMIWR Task Force members want to see?

DAVIS: I think members, you know, just simply don't want Mountain's appointment to be confirmed through whatever mechanism possible. Whether that's him stepping down, Gov. Lujan Grisham withdrawing her appointment, or the Senate voting to not confirm.

KUNM: They're not the only ones pushing back on the governor's appointment of Mountain to head Indian Affairs. You report Democratic state Sen. Shannon Pinto, a member of the Navajo Nation herself, has also been vocal. What are you hearing from the Senator?

DAVIS: Sen. Pinto has been involved with the task force as a policy advisor. She was very vocal during the task force meeting, and said that there's just no compromise for her on this, that she does not want to see the appointment go through, and it's going to do whatever she can to stop it. You know, I'll just share her words directly. She said, "it's not something that can happen right now. This is not the time, this is not the place, this is not the position that can be compromised as far as the figurehead representing Native American people within our state."

KUNM: And what does she say about how she's going about this fight?

DAVIS: I talked with her the day after the meeting, and she was firm in her position that she's trying to stop it. She's had conversations with Mountain, with the governor and with her fellow lawmakers.

KUNM: Has there been a response from Mountain?

DAVIS: Yeah, we reached out yesterday by email and phone and he chose to send us a response through an Indian Affairs spokesperson. And he started off by saying that he recognizes, "how upset and disappointed community members are as a result of these past allegations and charges, which are understandably bringing up the trauma that far too many Native women have suffered." He noted that that the charges were dropped and said that he's dedicated himself since then to "reestablish connections and competence among tribal communities," in part by serving as governor of San Ildefonso. And he said that he's "committed to making things right." And, other than that statement, I don't think he's talked about this publicly.

KUNM: And what about the governor? Has she said anything since advocates, and even an Indigenous lawmaker in her own party, have brought up these deep concerns around her choice for the department?

DAVIS: Yeah, the governor's communications director Maddy Hayden sent us a statement yesterday. Hayden said the governor doesn't intend to withdraw the appointment and said their office, "hopes that those who are leveling these concerns would respect the judicial process and acknowledge the results."

KUNM: Okay, so the governor does not plan to withdraw the nomination at this point. What are you watching as this story unfolds, as you're continuing to follow it from here?

DAVIS: I'm going to be keeping an eye on the Senate Rules Committee schedule because appointments have to go through them. And I'd say I'm also watching for reactions from other folks outside of the task force. During the meeting, one member said she thought it shouldn't just be the task force to raise these concerns and the silence from other leadership was, "deafening and hurtful."

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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