Pueblo Of Pojoaque Gov. Jenelle Roybal Focuses On Community Wellbeing

Pueblo of Pojoaque Gov. Jenelle Roybal/Courtesy photo


Being the only woman Pueblo governor presents unique challenges, and Pueblo of Pojoaque Gov. Jenelle Roybal meets those head on.

“You have to stand even stronger and taller because you’re a female,” Roybal said. When one tribal official told her women should be in the kitchen and raising kids, she replied, “You know what? I’m a cook in the kitchen, I raise my kids, I have two degrees and I’m a tribal official. So you really underestimate us, because I can do all that and then some.”

This is Roybal’s eighth year as a tribal official. She has worked for the Pueblo since she was 15 years old, with only a brief stint of employment for the State of New Mexico. She has served as the Pueblo’s Director of Human Resources and before that as Assistant Director for the Education Department for five years. She was elected lieutenant governor in 2015, serving six years in that role. Shortly after her 2021 re-election, Gov. Joseph Talachy stepped down and she decided to run for governor. She is now serving her second term.

Roybal wonders if officials from tribes that do not even allow women to run for office will listen to her point of view. Her election has inspired other Puebloan women, who come to her with their own stories. She finds it heartbreaking that many who would like to run for office are prohibited by their tribes.

“I’d love to see more pueblos open this up to females, but these women all go on to become successful somewhere else,” Roybal said. “I’m glad they don’t stop. It’s unfortunate it couldn’t be for their own Pueblo like they wanted, but they still do great things.”

Roybal’s focus as governor is on the wellbeing of tribal members, ensuring they have the basic necessities of food, water and shelter. She is building the first new housing in almost 20 years (four homes completes so far and 21 on the way) and paying off large amounts of debt (one of her goals is to leave the Pueblo debt-free). Tribal members can now apply for medical assistance if their medical bills exceed their insurance coverage, and the Pueblo has increased support for its senior citizens to ensure they’re not struggling. She is renovating public buildings with new roofs and ventilation systems.

“We’ve been very fortunate. I have my grant writer and our directors working hard and we’ve been very successful with bringing in grant money,” Roybal said.

The Pueblo’s Path to Wellness program assists those struggling with substance abuse, not only for Pojoaque but for all tribes and nontribal spouses. The Sober Living component of that supports recovery for those who have been living on the street by providing housing.

One major accomplishment during her first term was becoming the first tribe in New Mexico to open a cannabis dispensary, Wō Poví Cannabis. All profits go towards education.

Roybal and other tribal officials do considerable outreach to ensure that tribal members know what programs are available to them, especially in the schools. They talk with high school students about their next steps and the benefits their tribe offers.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s rewarding, and I know that future generations won’t be struggling,” Roybal said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic Roybal continued a successful program that Gov. Talachy initiated in conjunction with New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, operating a covid facility that housed Native Americans from throughout the U.S. who had contracted the disease, helping to prevent the spread to their families. Roybal is proud that to this day there have been no covid-related deaths on the Pueblo, despite many multigenerational households She credits that to the Pueblo’s safety measures.

Education is one of Roybal’s priorities. The Pueblo already paid for tuition, fees and books for college students, but they can now apply for a $2,000 stipend each semester to cover housing and food.

“I began working on that when I was lieutenant governor. I didn’t want our tribal members struggling with a place to live, because I knew how hard it was to work and go to school. If we could help them with their rent in some way, they could focus on their schooling,” Roybal said.

Roybal worked her way through earning associate and bachelor’s degrees in business administration/management from Northern New Mexico College, while accelerating her class load so she could earn her degrees simultaneously.

Roybal was 25 years old, with a two-year-old child and seven months pregnant when she enrolled at Northern during a summer session. Despite advisors urging her to enroll after her child came, she was determined to start. As that semester ended, she had her second child on a Friday, left the hospital on Sunday, and began finals on Monday.

“It was hard, that’s for sure, but I just knew I had to. It was perfect timing, and I didn’t want to put it off,” Roybal said.

Having two young children was challenging. In her final year she often had to take her youngest to class and would inevitable find herself taking a test while bottle-feeding her daughter. Roybal appreciates the way her instructors accommodated her parental needs and praises Northern’s advisors and faculty for always being available when she needed help.

In hindsight, Roybal is thankful her first bid for lieutenant governor in 2008 failed. She does not believe she would have completed her degrees if she had been elected.

“I want to stress that you don’t stop until you’re happy with what you have, because you’re not going to go back. If you want a master’s, then you need to just go until you’re done,” Roybal said. “I finally got my bachelor’s and my associate and thought I need a break. I only needed 30 credits to finish my master’s and it’s been 10 years. Obviously, I never went back.”

Roybal urges her own daughters and others to go to college. She encourages those who may have a family to take the plunge. and believes high school students should take advantage of dual credit programs to graduate with both a diploma and an associate degree. 

“I think that whatever it is that is holding you back, just don’t think about it. Just do it,” Roybal said. “I was putting it off, too, because I already had one child and I was pregnant. And I’m glad I didn’t. Believe me, I had a lot of those days that were challenging, pulling out my hair, and I’m glad I did, because you feel so accomplished.

“I just know that it’s very important, even if you go to college just for general studies. I think employers see that commitment. You stuck it out, you earned your degree. You’ll be an asset to their business just because you have that drive.”

About Northern:

Northern New Mexico College has served the rural communities of Northern New Mexico for over a century. Since opening in 1909 as the Spanish American Normal School in El Rito, NM, the College has provided affordable access to quality academic programs that meet the changing educational, economic and cultural needs of the region.

Northern is an open-admissions institution offering the most affordable bachelor’s programs in the Southwest. Now one of the state’s four regional comprehensive institutions, with its main campus in Española, Northern offers more than 50 bachelor’s, associate, and certificate programs in arts & human sciences, film & digital media, STEM programs, business, education, liberal arts, and nursing. The College has reintroduced technical trades in partnership with two local unions and five public school districts through its new co-located Branch Community College, the first of its kind in the state’s history.  Northern is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) and has earned prestigious program specific accreditations for its engineering, nursing, education, and business programs. Learn more at https://nnmc.edu/.