National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel addresses the organization's winter session in Washington D.C., on February 14, 2018. Photo: NCAI

National Congress of American Indians under #MeToo fire

'This was not an easy decision'
Pokagon Band quits NCAI as Native women call for accountability
By Kevin Abourezk

A tribe with homelands in Michigan and Indiana has canceled its membership in the National Congress of American Indians in the wake of sexual harassment allegations against the organization’s highest-ranking attorney.

Matthew Wesaw, chairman of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, outlined his concerns in a Monday letter to Jefferson Keel, president of the nation’s oldest and largest inter-tribal organization. He said that his tribe was concerned that allegations against NCAI senior attorney hadn’t been thoroughly investigated.

“I hope NCAI has approved a competent third party to conduct a thorough investigation into the allegations,” Wesaw said. “This type of complaint cannot be taken lightly or ignored.”

“Jefferson, I fully support you and the work of NCAI, but until NCAI can show this matter has been satisfactorily resolved, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians has discontinued our membership," Wesaw continued. "This was not an easy decision but one we felt we had an obligation to make on behalf of our native women.”

Matthew Wesaw serves as chairman of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians. Photo: Pokagon Band

Wesaw said he was disappointed in Keel’s decision to defend NCAI following an August 31 report by Indianz.Com that showed NCAI had reassigned its general counsel, John Dossett, in the wake of sexual harassment allegations against him.

Dossett has been employed by the nation’s oldest and largest inter-tribal organization since 1995. And up until July, he was serving as general counsel, NCAI’s senior-most legal position and one with widespread influence in Indian Country, from policy matters in the executive branch and legislation on Capitol Hill to high-profile U.S. Supreme Court cases.

But as Dossett was working on issues like the Tribal Law and Order Act and the Violence Against Women Act, he was being accused of harassing, intimidating and pressuring female employees at NCAI, according to documents obtained by Indianz.Com and interviews with multiple sources. Following an internal review — one that was conducted by a Washington, D.C., attorney who has focused on the #MeToo movement and its impact in the workplace — his title was changed to “senior counsel,” a different role within the organization, though in the same legal area.

Yet Dossett, a married father of two whose main residence is in the state of Oregon, remains employed at the organization.

John Dossett, a long-serving attorney at the National Congress of American Indians, is seen in a 2016 photo at an NCAI event in Washington, D.C. Photo: NCAI

In a September 18 letter to tribal leaders, Keel defended NCAI’s handling of complaints against Dossett, saying the organization takes seriously harassment allegations.

“These allegations strike at our core values and mission,” Keel said in the letter . “We do not take them lightly.”

“Please know that NCAI is, and always has been, strongly committed to ensuring a workplace that is free of harassment and retaliation. We take all allegations of harassment seriously, making sure they are fully investigated, with appropriate corrective actions taken when necessary.”

Keel didn’t offer details about the allegations against Dossett or describe what actions NCAI had taken to address those allegations, but he criticized news reports about those allegations.

“Unfortunately, the published allegations you may have read are misleading,” Keel said. “They rely heavily on innuendo and are devoid of key facts. Because of NCAI’s strict adherence to its policies, we cannot share details of any personnel matters publicly.”

Keel could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

In his letter, Wesaw criticized NCAI’s handling of the allegations against Dossett and the lack of an independent investigation.

“Thank you for your letter to tribal leaders Jefferson, but I must share my disappointment in your comments,” he said. “If your statement is made as the result of a concluded investigation, thank you and disregard the rest of my response. But, if your statement is being presented now and there has not been an investigation at this point or the investigation is ongoing, then I am truly disappointed.”

Wesaw isn’t the only one in Indian Country who has expressed concern about how female employees at NCAI are treated.

In a September 19 statement, the board of directors for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center called for improved and safe working conditions for all Native women.

“As a national and leading organization in this space, we would be remiss in light of recent allegations regarding sexual harassment within the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) organization, in remaining silent about the need to create a safe working environment for all Native women where equality, respect, and institutional integrity are paramount,” the statement read.

“No organization is immune from assessing, with due diligence and through robust investigation, where it stands relative to the working environment it creates, tolerates and enables," the statement from the all-female board continued. "We must all engage in this ongoing litmus test and demand that our partners, including NCAI, do the same.”

Interviews with former employees show that some at NCAI tried to make the place safer for women, especially the young Native women who typically make up the bulk of the organization’s workforce. But repeated attempts to resolve complaints against Dossett went nowhere, documents obtained by Indianz.Com indicate, at least until the internal review this year.

"It's one of the biggest hypocritical things about NCAI,” one former employee said. “NCAI is the national leader on VAWA issues for Indian Country but they are not even taking care of their own."

Dossett’s treatment of women was common knowledge, according to this former employee.

"As a new staff, I was told by a colleague, 'You are a pretty young Native woman, beware of John Dossett. Don't be caught in a room alone with him,’” the former employee said, making her one of three former female employees interviewed by Indianz.Com who said they were told never to be alone with Dossett.

"It's the worst kept secret in D.C.'s Indian circles,” she said.

In late August, Nicole Hallingstad left her position as director of operations, a high-level role at NCAI, warning of an “oppressive culture” that has contributed to widespread staff turnover in recent years.

“Committed staff does not lightly leave an organization they love and a mission they are passionate about fulfilling,” Hallingstad, a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes, wrote in a letter to tribal leaders who serve on NCAI’s leadership board. “But when they see colleagues marginalized, disciplined, punished, and even terminated for trying to address issues of poor management – or bad actors not held to account for disrespectful behavior – and the oppressive culture of silence and lack of authentic process means they cannot speak with their voices, then they will speak with their feet.”

The culture indeed has had a significant impact on NCAI’s ability to retain Indian Country’s best and brightest. Since January, 11 employees have left NCAI, Hallingstad wrote in the letter. Overall, she said 33 full-time employees have left in the last three years.

Dossett, who is also on the faculty at the Lewis & Clark Law School in Oregon, has denied any wrongdoing with respect to one allegation against him.

"I have consistently denied, and continue to strongly deny, that I engaged in any improper behavior, or that I intended to make her feel uncomfortable," Dossett has told Indianz.Com.

"Out of respect for that individual, I will have no further comment," he added.

But earlier this year, Dossett was more than willing to discuss this particular incident. An email that was provided to the D.C. attorney who conducted the internal review for NCAI contains alarming information about his interactions with a female employee.

In the document, Dossett said he “never harassed” the employee, though he admits he “totally restrained” her by the arm during the incident in question. He also said he “held” the woman’s hand in what he characterized as an attempt to assist her after a long day of work at the “end of a big meeting.”

Even as he offered an apology for his behaviors, he suggested that he had justification to act in that manner. He said he was concerned about the employee’s well-being, saying that she was “really tired” and was affected by “maybe too many beers.”

“I am not one to judge,” he wrote in the email, which he generated in February, shortly after the conclusion of NCAI's winter session in D.C., in an apparent attempt to reconcile with the employee who had accused him of misconduct.

Nicole Hallingstad, whose resignation as NCAI's director of operations was effective August 24, commended the Pokagon Band for its decision to cancel its membership in NCAI until working conditions are improved.

“Remember, this isn’t about any single incident but a long-term culture of disrespect and harassment that NCAI’s executive director allows to exist and disturbingly protects,” Hallingstad told Indianz.Com on Tuesday.

“That is what I believe has contributed to costly employee turnover. It’s heartening to see tribes who are stepping forward to make sure women in the workplace are protected. The time of silence, enabling, and delays or straight out inaction about workplace harassment needs to end.”

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