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PED terminates leader of Indian Education Division

The New Mexico Public Education Department’s Indian Education Division is under new leadership.

Latifah Phillips, former assistant secretary of the division, worked her last day March 19.

PED told the Journal on Thursday that DeAlva Calabaza, who has served the state for nearly two decades and was born and raised on the Santo Domingo Pueblo, will serve as acting assistant secretary.

“We are confident that DeAlva will fight for New Mexico’s children and take the work of the Indian Education Division to the next level as we cross the threshold of the 15-Year Anniversary of the Indian Education Act,” PED said in a statement.

Phillips wrote a letter – posted online by New Mexico in Depth – to tribal leaders, saying the departure was a “complete surprise.”

PED wouldn’t answer questions about why Phillips was replaced or if she was given any notice, saying the situation is a “confidential personnel matter.”

“I was approached with a termination letter with no explanation or any known documented reasoning, and then presented with the opportunity to resign,” she wrote.

Phillips wrote that she chose to be fired instead of resigning as a “small act of protest.”

“The recent statements of Manifest Destiny … and the failure to properly engage in early tribal consultation relating to impacts on Native language programs reflect varying degrees of departure from the articulated aspirations defined in the Indian Education Act,” she wrote.

PED Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski drew criticism and national media attention for citing Manifest Destiny among the “fundamental principles of this country” during a speech praising charter school options. After the criticism, he expressed “remorse” over the reference.

Tribal leaders objected to the reference to a 19th-century concept that justified conquest and disenfranchisement of Native peoples.

“While New Mexico has come a long way in articulating an Indian education policy guiding the enactment of the Indian Education Act and defining the aspirations for our children, we have fallen short and have a very long way to go,” the letter said. “There is much that we must do.”