Advocates for missing and murdered Indigenous people denounce Indian Affairs appointee

James Mountain, Cabinet Secretary Designate of the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department, speaks during American Indian Day at the State Capitol. Image by Bella Davis/ NMID

By Bella Davis/ New Mexico In Depth

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. “I’m just at the point where I feel, do I need to resign from this task force?”

New Mexico has the most missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the nation, according to a task force report from December 2020. Albuquerque ranked second for such cases out of 71 cities the Urban Indian Health Institute surveyed in 2017. Gallup ranked sixth. 

“It shouldn’t just be this task force to raise this issue,” Crotty said. “And I think the silence from other leadership is deafening at this point. And that also is pretty hurtful.”

State Sen. Shannon Pinto, a Democrat from Tohatchi and member of the Navajo Nation, told participants she’s been fighting Mountain’s appointment since Saturday, meeting with him and with Lujan Grisham. She’s also talking with her fellow lawmakers to stop the appointment.

“I’ve been fighting this, will fight it ‘til the end,” said Pinto, who acts as a policy advisor to the task force. “There’s not any compromise for me in it to support it in any manner. It’s just 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.”

Mountain, a former governor and supreme court justice of San Ildefonso Pueblo, was accused of rape in 2007. He was indicted on charges of criminal sexual penetration, kidnapping and aggravated battery against a household member in 2008, but the case was dismissed in 2010 because the prosecution said it had insufficient evidence to proceed to trial. The court record was put under seal.

Mountain responded to the task force members’ concerns through an agency spokesperson on Thursday.  

“I recognize how upset and disappointed our 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,” Mountain said in a statement, noting that the charges were dismissed. 

“I have dedicated myself to reestablish connections and confidence among our tribal communities, including by serving as the governor of the Pueblo de San Ildefonso,” he said. “I am committed to making things right and continuing the healing process with our community members, advocates, and legislators.” He added that he’s had conversations with task force members, lawmakers, and tribal leaders. 

Hayden did not answer a question about whether the governor’s office reached out to task force members for input prior to the appointment, but noted that the governor is aware of the case and that the charges were dropped. 

“Secretary-designate Mountain has worked within and across tribal communities for many years, including the last two with this administration, where he has been integral in carrying out many of the top priorities of the pueblos, tribes and nations of New Mexico,” Hayden said in the email.    

Former Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo chaired the task force before she left the agency in November. Now task force members are concerned Mountain might step into that role. But even if he agrees to not chair the task force, some members said he isn’t suitable to lead the Indian Affairs Department. 

Pinto told New Mexico In Depth she learned about Mountain’s arrest on the day of his appointment, and started hearing from concerned members of her community on the Navajo Nation the day after. They sent links to a news article that was published at the time of his arrest, she said.

The Legislature created the task force in 2019 and the group published a response plan in 2022.

This story was originally published by New Mexico In Depth