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New Mexico nomination spurs concerns among Native Americans

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s governor is standing firm in her decision to nominate a former tribal leader who once faced sexual assault charges to head the state’s Indian Affairs Department, fueling anger among Native American advocates who have been working to address violence and missing persons cases within their communities.

The advocates are pushing a state Senate committee to hold a confirmation hearing for James Mountain, just as the panel has done for others in Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's cabinet. Not doing so means Mountain won't be publicly vetted like other top officials but still can serve in the job.

“With the confirmation hearing not happening, we’re silencing entire communities who were ready to say what needs to be said — and now we don’t have that opportunity,” said Angel Charley, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women.

Democratic Sen. Katy Duhigg, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, wouldn't say whether she will put Mountain on the agenda before the legislative session ends March 18.

Concern over Mountain's nomination erupted last week during a meeting of the state's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force. Some members threatened to resign.

The governor's office pointed out that charges against Mountain were dismissed in 2010 after prosecutors said they didn't have enough evidence to go to trial, and it urged those raising concerns about his past to “respect the judicial process and acknowledge the results.”

The question of whether Mountain could effectively lead an agency charged with advocating for New Mexico's 23 sovereign tribal nations comes as momentum grows nationwide for officials to take on more homicide and missing persons cases in Indian Country.

This week, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Lisa Monaco and U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland hosted the first in-person session of the Not Invisible Act Commission in Washington. The commission will be holding field hearings across the U.S. later this year as it develops recommendations for preventing and responding to violence that has disproportionately affected trial communities.

New Mexico created its own task force in 2019, and legislation was signed in 2022 to bolster efforts in the state through data collection and streamlined communication among law enforcement agencies.

Some task force members are concerned the progress made over the last two years could be jeopardized, given the discord over leadership of the Indian Affairs Department.

Sen. Shannon Pinto, a Democrat who represents a district that includes the Navajo Nation, has vowed to fight Mountain's nomination.

“There’s not any compromise for me to support this confirmation in any manner,” she said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. “It’s just not something that can happen right now. This is not the time. This is not the place. This is not a position that can be compromised.”

The governor's office did not answer questions about whether it has had any meetings or whether it sought input from Native American communities when choosing a successor for Lynn Trujillo, who stepped down as secretary in November before taking a job with the Interior Department.

Mountain did not directly address the concerns about his nomination, but the Indian Affairs Department said he was looking forward to doing interviews following his confirmation hearing. The agency, however, did not know when or if such a hearing would be scheduled.

Mountain has defended himself, telling the online outlet New Mexico in Depth that he dedicated himself to reestablishing connections and confidence among tribal communities.

"I am committed to making things right and continuing the healing process with our community members, advocates and legislators,” said Mountain, who served two terms as governor of San Ildefonso Pueblo.

Democratic Sen. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque previously oversaw the Senate confirmation process for nearly two decades and is a member of the state's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force.

“To have somebody sitting in charge of the department with that type of a history is not good,” she said. “It’s not good. It hurts the women and much of the work.”

The governor's office declined to say if it had considered others for the post.

For Charley, the nomination has been disheartening. She questioned whether the vetting process should have been more inclusive given the importance of the state agency.

“This is bigger than one person,” she said. “We’re trying to remind folks that this is an opportunity to improve an entire system for our communities. And so transparency with the nomination process and the governor’s office could have and would have saved our community a lot of pain right now if we had that in place.”

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Associated Press writer Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico, contributed to this report.