Native American advocacy groups call on education official to resign

Politics - Government

SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – A high-ranking state education official is under fire for comments about Native Americans. After lawmakers let her keep her job, Native American advocacy and other social justice groups are calling for her resignation. Rachel Gudgel is responsible for helping craft policies for New Mexico’s children. Following controversial remarks she allegedly made, she’s now apologizing but some said that’s not enough.

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“I think that her comments are reprehensible they are entirely insensitive and they carry an enormous amount of harm,” said Chloe Jake with the NAVA Education Project. In a letter, more than a dozen Native American advocacy groups and other social justice groups are calling on the Legislative Education Study Committee’s (LESC) director, Rachel Gudgel, to resign.

Gudgel’s accused of making racist comments about Native Americans. Like a remark directed at a Native American charter school on the Jicarilla Apache Nation. “To my knowledge the quote was, ‘it’s not like making beaded sandals is going to change student outcomes,'” said Jake.

According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, workers in the LESC said Gudgel belittled Native Americans, using terms like ‘powwow.’ In an apology letter she sent to Tribes, Nations, Pueblos and their families, Gudgel in part states she made isolated and insensitive comments that were insulting and harmful. She goes on to say she regrets the impact of her ignorant choice of words. Gudgel said she has met with Tribal leaders and Native American community members with the goal of respectfully listening, learning and understanding.

However, some said that’s not enough.

“I think at this point, I don’t think there’s any sort of way to repair the damage that has already been done,” said Julia Bernal with the Pueblo Action Alliance. “She just needs to be replaced.” Gudgel holds the top spot on the LESC that helps recommend policy plans for public education. “In order to restore faith in our public institutions it is absolutely the right thing to do to resign,” said Jake.

In a closed-door executive session in July, lawmakers on the LESC voted to keep Gudgel as the committee’s director. With Senator Shannon Pinto (D – Gallup) saying she has experienced nothing but professionalism from Gudgel and it’s time to move forward exercising forgiveness.

In Gudgel’s letter, she also states her employer’s reprimand and corrective action addressed this sad and unfortunate chapter in her government career. KRQE News 13 tried to find out exactly what were the complaints staffers made against Gudgel but the state said it is part of the record of the investigation and is not subject to disclosure.

Read Gudgel’s full apology letter below:

To New Mexico Tribes, Nations, and Pueblos and your Children and Families,

As has been heavily reported, I made some isolated, insensitive comments about Native Americans and Native American education in 2019 that were insulting and harmful. I very much regret the impact of my ignorant choice of words and cavalier attitude and apologize to New Mexico tribal leadership and their communities, families and children and to the staff of the Legislative Education Study Committee for not being more thoughtful or informed.  I further regret that these transgressions have taken the focus away from the work of the committee to develop policy and support resources for New Mexico children – especially Native American students.

The comments I made were not intended to be disrespectful, harmful or insulting, but exemplified my knowledge gap of Native American histories and cultures in New Mexico.  I am deeply sorry and sincerely regret these statements.  I humbly ask for your forgiveness. I realize that my comments were hurtful and caused disharmony to you, your families and children, and to Navajo, Pueblo and Apache tribal communities.

I have spent much time reflecting on my actions and I take sole responsibility for them. I have since worked to become better informed and to be a better supervisor and better person. I learned a lot from the initial fallout and the more recent attention is an important reminder that growth is an ongoing process. Last year, following the reprimand by my employer, I started on a mission of increasing my understanding and exposure to other peoples’ values, cultures, beliefs and experiences.

My recent conversations with President Nez, Vice President Lizer and other Native American community members are opening the door for me to further reflect on this difficult experience with the goal of respectfully listening, learning and understanding. These conversations have been very humbling for me and provide a needed understanding to be more culturally sensitive and effective on behalf of all New Mexicans, particularly our Pueblos, Tribes and Nations.

My decision to remain quiet until now was based on the fact that this is and was a part of a confidential personnel matter reviewed by my employer, and the process and knowledge that my employer’s reprimand and corrective action addressed this sad and unfortunate chapter in my government career.

I am eager to put these events behind me and help the committee continue to work collaboratively with the Tribes, Nations and Pueblos of New Mexico to focus on the great challenges Native students face.

On ending, I again sincerely and humbly ask for your forgiveness.  I was wrong and am deeply sorry.

Letter from Rachel Gudgel

Sen. Pinto sent the following statement:

I do not condone any form of racism, whether expressed in words or actions. The committee actions in the matter of our LESC Director have concluded, and the priority now should be focused on the important issues to improve educational outcomes for every child in New Mexico. 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. I have faith in the actions taken by the committee and its members when this first came up and now ask that we move forward exercising forgiveness and respect, engaged and more unified in our purpose.

State Senator Shannon Pinto, District 3 (D – Gallup)

Gudgel sent the following statement:

I have been a public servant for more than a decade. In that time, I have worked closely and productively with legislators of both parties. I have publicly apologized for making isolated insensitive statements and yet they continue to be taken out of context. I was disciplined and received strong support from House and Senate leadership, as well as LESC leadership more than a year ago. So why is this being resurrected now?  While I am used to the politics, I have never experienced these kinds of intentionally false attacks against me, my character and my dedication to the state. It is shameful. We have much work to do and character attacks do not improve education for our kids.

Statement from Rachel Gudgel

After this story was published, leadership in the New Mexico House of Representatives contributed this comment: “House leadership denies the claim made in Rachel’s [Gudgel] statement that she receive their support over a year ago.”

Read the full letter calling for Gudgel’s resignation below:

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