Wednesday, July 17, 2024

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Tribes call for NM official’s removal

By Colleen Keane
Special to the Times


A top staffer at the New Mexico Legislature, Rachel Gudgel, has been under fire for allegedly making derogatory comments about Native American education and culture.

Tribal leaders and a growing number of allies want her removed from her position as director of the Legislative Education Study Committee.

Also protesting her comments, Regis Pecos, former governor of Cochiti Pueblo, who has been a legislative advisor for more than three decades, handed in his resignation, according to his June 15 letter.

“I deeply regret I no longer in good conscience can continue to be part of a system and institution that represents the perpetuation of systemic and institutional racism against our beloved people,” he wrote.

More protests are expected after a recent committee vote.

Gudgel, an attorney, advises committee members, 10 voting and 20 advisory, on policies, laws and costs for the education of all New Mexico students.

Her position is said to be one of the most critical ones in state government. She oversees about a dozen staff.

Native legislators on the committee are Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, Rep. Wonda Johnson, D-McKinley-San Juan, and Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-McKinley-San Juan. Lente is a voting member, Pinto and Johnson are advisory members.

Milan Simonich, a news columnist for the Santa Fe New Mexican, broke the story about Gudgel’s comments on June 12 after a long list of staff complaints, including bullying, landed on his desk.

“The workers’ most serious charge was that Gudgel disparaged Native Americans, often using terms such as ‘powwow’ and ‘smoke signals,’” wrote Simonich.

He added that one complainant quoted Gudgel as saying, “It’s not like making beaded sandals is going to improve student outcomes.”

“I find these comments offensive,” Lente said. “It’s a cancer in the system that should not be allowed to be there. We have to call people out on statements like this!”

The comments are especially concerning after a hard-fought lawsuit, Yazzie-Martinez against the state of New Mexico.

The court ruled in favor of Yazzie-Martinez agreeing that Native American children and other at-risk children have had poor educational outcomes in part because they haven’t had access to culturally and linguistically relevant curriculums.

“If we don’t force the issue, we are still going to be talking about this 50 years from now!” exclaimed Pecos during the height of the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit two years ago.

Tribes speak out

Responding to news reports about Gudgel’s comments, President Jonathan Nez and All Pueblo Council of Governors Chairman Wilfred Herrera Jr. asked that Gudgel be removed immediately.

They asked that she apologize to Native students, families and leaders, according to copies of letters obtained by the Times.

Three groups, Albuquerque’s NAACP, Native American Democratic Caucus of New Mexico, New Mexico Acequia Association and Transform Education NM, support tribal leadership.

Adding her voice, Indian Affairs cabinet Secretary Lynn Trujillo, Sandia Pueblo, wrote in an email to the Times, “These types of disparaging comments continue to perpetuate negative stereotypes about our indigenous people and communities.”

Terry Sloan, Albuquerque’s intergovernmental tribal liaison, said education is the key.

“My experience shows once people begin to get educated about cultures,” he said, “Native indigenous cultures, they lose preconceived notions.”

The city has created a series of education programs through its Office of Equity and Inclusion.

During a closed-door executive session July 20, committee members voted 5 -5 and the tie vote resulted in Gudgel staying in her present position.

In a phone call before the committee vote, Lente questioned why he and others hadn’t seen a report on Gudgel by investigator Thomas Hnasko.

“As voting members of LESC, we are (her) direct supervisors,” he said. “As direct supervisors, we should have access to personnel files, reports and issues related to staff concerns.”

After finally reading details of Hnasko’s report, Lente stated in a press release, “I was alarmed by the allegations when they appeared in print and social media.

“And now,” he said, “after reading the report, all I can say is that it’s worse than I imagined. We cannot just sweep this under the rug and hope that it fixes itself.”

Copies of invoices reveal a tab of more than $60,000 for Hnasko’s report.

‘Make our voices heard’

Calls for Gudgel’s dismissal are building.

“We will not tolerate such despicable attitudes and behaviors by a key and very influential legislative position,” Herrera stated in a July 22 news release. “We have a sacred trust to stand up and protect our children and our people. We will consider all measures politically and legally.”

Extending an apology, Gudgel wrote in an email message to the Times, “I regret and am sorry for my isolated, insensitive comments. My track record on being an advocate for the success of all New Mexico students and specifically Native American students – which includes more than 11 years as a legislative employee – stands on its own merits.

“I have learned a lot from this,” she said, “and humbly ask for forgiveness.”

Ahtza Chavez, Diné/Kewa Pueblo, executive director of Native American Voter’s Alliance Education Project, said, “It is one thing to say you’re sorry; it’s another to implement real change by taking corrective steps like supporting the funding of Native education, and implementing ethnic diversity training for herself and her staff.”

James Jimenez, executive director New Mexico Voices for Children, said, “That’s the question. Is it going to be empty words or is the apology going to be backed up by action that incorporates advice from Native leaders?”

In support of Gudgel, Pinto stated, “I do not condone any form of racism, whether expressed in words or actions. I have experienced nothing but professionalism and respect from the director of LESC during my time in the Legislature and through my work with the agency she leads.”

An interim LESC meeting was scheduled for July 28 to 30 at the Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center in Shiprock. Gudgel was on the agenda.

However, the meeting’s been postponed to October or an earlier, safer time, according to a notice from LESC committee chair, Sen. William Soules, due to a “growing concern that the new Delta variant poses for Shiprock.”

A protest was planned during the Shiprock meeting, said Isaac Dakota Casados, Diné, chair of the Native American Democratic Caucus of New Mexico.

Casados said his group and partners will be announcing a new date for a protest soon.

“We are going to make our voices heard,” Casados said. “We are not going to sit back and let this whole issue blow over and be swept under the rug.”

Pecos added, “I must use my voice to stand up for what is not right to honor the many who have sacrificed their lives for us. They did so for the ultimate love for our languages, their culture and traditions and our way of life.”

Calls to Soules and LESC member Sen. Mimi Stewart, president pro tem, weren’t returned by deadline.

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