The former pueblo leader nominated by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to head the state’s Indian Affairs Department is leaving that post less than a year into the job to take on a new role as a policy adviser to the governor.
James Mountain’s new role as senior policy adviser for tribal affairs was confirmed Friday by the governor’s office in a statement.
Josett Monette will take the reins of the Indian Affairs Department, after serving previously in roles as deputy director and general counsel at the agency. Monette is affiliated with the North Dakota-based Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa.
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Mountain’s appointment in February as cabinet secretary immediately fueled anger among Native American advocates who worked to address violence and missing persons cases within their communities. They pointed to sexual assault charges against Mountain, saying he wasn’t the right person to lead the state agency.
Lujan Grisham’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 governor also had highlighted Mountain’s history as a leader at San Ildefonso Pueblo and his expertise in state and tribal relations, as she pushed for a Senate committee to hold a confirmation hearing so Mountain could be vetted like other cabinet members.
But the governor’s office never forwarded his nomination to the committee for consideration — and did not answered questions about whether it sought input from Native American communities when choosing Mountain as a successor for Lynn Trujillo, who stepped down as secretary in November 2022 before taking a job with the U.S. Interior Department.
In March, protesters gathered at the state capitol to call for greater accountability in the system for vetting state-appointed positions that serve Indigenous communities.
Mountain never directly addressed the concerns about his nomination. In a letter to state lawmakers, his daughter, Leah Mountain, described him as a devoted father who instilled cultural identity, confidence and aspiration in her after her mother left. She said the allegations against him are false.
Mountain served as governor at San Ildefonso Pueblo from 2006 to 2007 and again from 2015 to 2017. He oversaw the completion of the Aamodt Water Settlement, concerning the pueblo’s water rights, and the Indian Land Claims Settlement in 2006. He also ran his own state-tribal affairs consulting firm in recent years.