Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has decided to replace her previous nominee for the head of the state Indian Affairs Department, James Mountain. Mountain, who faced protests during his short tenure, will now assume the role of a senior policy advisor for tribal affairs in the Governor’s Office. Josett D. Monette, the current deputy secretary of the agency, has been appointed as the new Cabinet secretary, as announced in a news release on Friday.
Monette, who joined the department in March and was later promoted to deputy secretary in July, brings a wealth of experience to the position. Governor Lujan Grisham expressed confidence in both Mountain and Monette, stating, “Both former secretary-designate Mountain and secretary-designate Monette are proven leaders who are dedicated to serving the nations, tribes, and pueblos of New Mexico. This administration will continue to prioritize meaningful government-to-government relations and the effective and equitable delivery of resources to tribal communities.”
The controversy surrounding Mountain’s nomination emerged when it was revealed that he had faced charges of rape in 2007, which were dismissed in 2010 due to insufficient evidence for a trial. Despite the dismissal, concerns were raised, including by members of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force. The governor’s office defended Mountain, emphasizing the dismissal of charges and urging respect for the judicial process.
Governor Lujan Grisham initially nominated Mountain in February, highlighting his leadership at San Ildefonso Pueblo and expertise in state and tribal relations. However, the nomination faced criticism, and questions were raised about the selection process. The governor’s office never forwarded Mountain’s nomination for a confirmation hearing, and it did not address whether input from Native American communities was sought in the selection process.
In response to the controversy, Monette, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, steps into the role with a commitment to serving Native American communities. She previously served as the New Mexico Legal Aid Native American program director and has a background in legal work for various Native entities.
While Mountain did not directly address concerns about his nomination, his daughter, Leah Mountain, defended him in a letter to state lawmakers, describing him as a devoted father. Mountain expressed gratitude for his time as Indian Affairs secretary, stating, “The governor has done nothing but uphold her promises and commitments to tribal leaders and our people.” He looks forward to continuing to serve in a new role for the administration, tribes, and New Mexico.