New Mexico creates new council to address cases of missing and slain Native Americans

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico is creating a new advisory council that will be charged with implementing a state plan for responding to cases of missing or slain Native Americans, with top state officials vowing Tuesday that the work will lead to more people being found and families gaining closure.

Democrat Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s announcement follows criticism from advocates who feared the state was losing momentum after the governor dissolved the task force that came up with the plan more than a year ago.

Advocates on Tuesday renewed their criticism, saying work to implement the plan has stalled and that communication among law enforcement and victims’ families remains one of the biggest problems. That issue was acknowledged by the governor as she announced the next step in New Mexico to address what has been described as a crisis for Indigenous communities both in the United States and Canada.

“Bringing more law enforcement to the table will help address a major crux of this issue: a lack of coordination among federal, tribal, state and local entities,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “The work of this group will help bring missing Native people home, provide closure to families and communities, and prevent other families from experiencing these tragedies.”

Pojoaque Pueblo Gov. Jenelle Roybal and Picuris Pueblo Gov. Craig Quanchello will lead the council. The two are in the final stages of selecting the other council members.

Lujan Grisham’s office did not say how many members will be part of the council, and state Indian Affairs Secretary James Mountain did not provide many details to lawmakers when he mentioned the new council during a meeting Tuesday in Albuquerque.

Darlene Gomez, an attorney who has been helping families with missing relatives, said she was disappointed that there didn’t seem to be much of a plan beyond announcing that a council would be formed.

“The state response plan was done in May of 2022 and there were short-term goals that should have already been met,” Gomez said. “They cannot point to what goals they’ve met.”

The Indian Affairs Department did not immediately respond when asked what Mountain and agency officials believed should be priorities for the new council or what actions could be taken in the short term to begin implementing the state’s plan.

Nationally, federal officials are weighing the recommendations of a special commission that spent more than a year gathering comments and talking with tribal leaders, families, health care providers and other experts about the best ways for tackling the high rate of violence in tribal communities.

The U.S. Interior and Justice departments are under a mandate to respond to the recommendations early next year.

Meanwhile, many states have established their own task forces and commissions to study the problem. In neighboring Arizona _ which has the third-largest Native American population in the U.S. _ commissioners are facing a Dec. 1 deadline for rolling out their first report. It is to include recommendations for legislative and administrative changes in that state.

Other states such as Alaska have issued reports on the number of missing people, but advocates say the data is limited because of the way cases are often reported and tracked.

The recommendations crafted by the federal Not Invisible Act Commission are not unlike those included in New Mexico’s state response plan. Both documents acknowledge the complexity of the problem, from its roots in historic policies that sought to cut Native American and Alaska Natives’ ties with their language and culture to current day public safety and public health challenges.

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