Jackie Pata, a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes, has served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians since 2001. As the longest serving executive director in the organization's history, she is seen here at NCAI's mid-year conference in Spokane, Washington, in June 2016. John Dossett, the organization's former senior attorney, appears in the background. Photo: NCAI

Former employees take aim at National Congress of American Indians in #MeToo scandal

By Kevin Abourezk

Former employees of the National Congress of American Indians are raising alarms about the organization's handling of a sexual harassment scandal that has cost a senior attorney his job and has engulfed another high-ranking staffer.

Two women, including one whose complaint was publicly disclosed for the first time by John Dossett, NCAI's former general counsel, felt the need to respond after reading a lengthy statement he sent out last week. Another woman is also coming forward, criticizing the organization for its handling of one of her complaints.

“The statement from John Dossett is disturbing on many levels,” said Nicole Hallingstad, who served as director of operations for NCAI until August. “It breaches confidential knowledge, is defamatory to me, is inaccurate, speculative and illogical. However, the Dossett situation is simply a symptom of higher mismanagement of NCAI human resources, which I tried in my position to correct.”

The second employee filed a sexual harassment complaint against Dossett earlier this year. She said his statement falsely describes the incident at issue and demonstrates alarming actions on the part of NCAI's senior management, particularly executive director Jackie Pata, whom some tribal leaders are blaming for mishandling the matter.

“Never would I have imagined that its contents would be shared directly with the alleged harasser, nor would those contents then be shared — verbatim — with the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Senator [Chuck] Schumer’s Office, and countless others John Dossett copied on his email,” said the former employee.

"To see the words I wrote so publicly displayed is numbing, nauseating," said the former employee, who was granted anonymity out of concern for her privacy. [Full Statement: ]

NCAI 75th Anniversary Historical Photo Album

75th Anniversary Historical Photo Album
Way Back When: NCAI 75th Anniversary Historical Photo Album

Using his NCAI email account, Dossett indeed sent his statement to a wide audience of tribal leaders, Native women advocates and key staff members on Capitol Hill on October 3. For those in Washington, D.C., it showed up in their inboxes around 3pm Eastern time.

By the end of the day, he was out of a job at the nation's largest and oldest inter-tribal advocacy organization, with Pata indicating that NCAI was blindsided by his missive.

“NCAI had no knowledge of, and John was not authorized to send, that statement to anyone,” Pata told Indianz.Com that day. “Further, I can only confirm that John Dossett is no longer employed by NCAI."

Dossett's departure is a sign of the mounting pressure that NCAI has faced after an August 31 report by Indianz.Com showed that Dossett, a married father of two, had been reassigned following an internal investigation into complaints against him.

Prior to the investigation, Dossett served as NCAI’s general counsel, its highest-ranking legal position and one with widespread influence in legal and policy issues in Indian Country. He had held that position since 1995.

But after the investigation ended, his title was changed to senior counsel, a different role within the organization, though in the same legal area.

Despite the reassignment, some tribal leaders have called for greater accountability and transparency, with some going as far as to seek Pata's suspension pending an independent investigation. The former employee whose complaint was divulged by Dossett welcomes further inquiry.

“Although John Dossett is gone, this issue is systemic,” she said. "The executive leadership of NCAI should be asked what they knew and when, and be held to account when appropriate actions were not taken to advance safety in the workplace."

On September 24, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians canceled its membership in NCAI and expressed deep concerns about the organization’s actions so far. In a letter to NCAI President Jefferson Keel, the tribe’s chairman, Matthew Wesaw, said the Pokagon were concerned that allegations against Dossett hadn’t been thoroughly investigated.

And as NCAI heads into its 75th annual convention this month, leaders from two tribes submitted a pair of resolutions to be considered at the meeting, seeking closer scrutiny of the allegations against Dossett and Pata’s response to those allegations.

Harold Frazier, the chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, submitted one of the two resolutions. If it's approved, Pata, NCAI's longest-serving executive director, would be placed on administrative leave until the investigation is complete.

Kevin DuPuis, the chairman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, submitted the second resolution. It would require the NCAI executive committee – its president, vice president, secretary, treasurer and 12 area vice presidents – to hire an independent investigator to examine whether incidents of sexual harassment have occurred within the organization and to determine if they helped create a hostile work environment.

An 'axe to grind'
In his statement, Dossett paints himself as a victim of a long-running political "rivalry" between two Native women -- Hallingstad and Pata. Both are citizens of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes who are active in Sealaska, one of the Native regional corporations in Alaska. They both serve on the corporation's board.

Beyond those connections, Dossett offers little explanation for the alleged rivalry, other than to say it was something "I don’t understand."

Still, he describes Hallingstad as a woman who caused "trouble" at NCAI and had an "axe to grind." He accuses her of disclosing confidential information to Indianz.Com about the sexual harassment allegations against him. He provides no evidence of the claim, except to say that she was quoted in the August 31 story about his reassignment.

For the record, Hallingstad did not divulge confidential details about any employee, past or present, to Indianz.Com. That includes Dossett or anyone who might have complained about him.

To the contrary, Hallingstad's quotes in the story were taken from a statement, which was published in full, that relayed her concerns about the working environment at NCAI. A letter she sent to tribal leaders who serve on NCAI's executive committee also was published in full.

“My departing internal letter to NCAI’s Executive Committee urged them to consider drastic employee departure rates as a symptom as well,” Hallingstad told Indianz.Com. “It never even mentioned Dossett."

Nicole Hallingstad, a ciitzen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes, served as director of operations for the National Congress of American Indians until August 24, 2018. According to a letter sent to tribal leaders, an “oppressive culture” at NCAI has contributed to widespread staff turnover in recent years. Courtesy photo

But after setting up Hallingstad as the instigator, Dossett goes on to label the woman who filed a complaint against him as "Nicole’s Friend [Who] Picks Up the Axe." He speculates that she was "likely" a source for Indianz.Com's August 31 story.

Again, that is not the case. She came forward to Indianz.Com -- for the first time -- in late September, almost a month after the story was published, and it was only to share information about the way her complaint was handled.

But after reading his October 3 statement, she chose to share some details about the incident in question. She flat-out refuted Dossett's suggestion that Hallingstad urged her to file the complaint.

"This is not a coordinated attack; people ‘came out of the woodwork’ in the course of the investigation into John Dossett’s behavior because many individuals had their own accounts of his harassment, intimidation, and bullying," she said. "And they witnessed how his behavior was consistently protected, enabled, and excused. No longer.

She further questions how Dossett was able to quote directly from her complaint, which she believed had been filed on a confidential basis. Pata did not respond to a request for comment about how the information might have reached NCAI's long-serving legal official.

The complaint at issue centers on NCAI's mid-year conference in Spokane, Washington, in June 2016. According to Dossett's retelling, he walked into a hotel lounge where some staff members were watching soccer on TV and asked what their plans were for the evening.

When the woman said she was planning to go to her room to nap, Dossett allegedly responded by saying: “Alright, I guess I’ll go beat off in my room, then.”

Dossett believes he said, “Alright, I’ll go back up to my room then,” but thinks the former employee misheard him amid the din of the TV and people talking in the hotel lounge. He strongly denies being the kind of professional who would use vulgar language.

“I had been the general counsel for more than 20 years because I don’t use expressions like that,” Dossett said in his statement.

But the former employee stands by her allegation that he indeed made the vulgar remark.

“In his statement, John Dossett asserts that I ‘likely misheard’ him,” she told Indianz.Com. “I did not."

"His reference to ‘beating off’ was completely in line with his confession to making ‘inappropriate jokes in unguarded moments,’" she continued. "It was so nonchalant — without a care for how it could be received by a female junior staffer who interacted with him infrequently.”

"The incident struck me as so deeply inappropriate that I shared it privately with two colleagues within two hours of its occurrence, and one colleague the morning after," she added.

The former employee, who left NCAI this year, has broader concerns as well. She thinks the organization's highest executive leader -- President Jefferson Keel, who was elected to the position at last year's annual convention -- is misleading member tribes about the way the allegations against Dossett have been handled.

In a September 25 letter to tribal leaders, Keel described the organization’s response in this way: “Upon learning of the allegations, NCAI’s first step was to retain an outside legal expert on sexual harassment law and related issues to conduct an investigation.”

But the former employee said NCAI's "first step" in her case was something entirely different. She said Pata earlier this year initially charged a fellow employee who works closely with Dossett to investigate.

"This assignment struck me as wholly inappropriate and lacking due care," she said, adding: "I fought against this internally-driven process."

Against this pressure, Pata relented. As Indianz.Com reported on August 31, and as Dossett confirmed in his statement, NCAI brought in an outside attorney who has focused on the #MeToo movement and its impact in the workplace.

The 'judge and jury'
Additionally, Dossett's statement confirms he was the subject of another sexual harassment incident at the Spokane conference, one involving a female employee whom he attempted to escort back to her hotel room at the conclusion of the event. Indianz.Com also reported about this allegation, based on details which were provided to the outside attorney hired by NCAI.

But at the time of the incident, there was no independent investigation. According to Dossett, Pata took it upon herself to resolve it.

“Allegations of sexual harassment are very serious matters, and the Executive Director investigated, and concluded that none had taken place,” he wrote, referring to this second incident.

Three former employees who were aware of the allegation said they were troubled by Pata's handling of it. One of them -- the one who filed the complaint this year -- said it demonstrates a lack of accountability and due process within NCAI.

“In this very sentence, John Dossett confirms that complaints were kept internal,” she said, referring to Dossett's statement. “NCAI Executive Director Jacqueline Pata positioned herself as the judge and jury of the sexual harassment allegations raised in 2016. There was never an external legal investigation.”

Two other former employees told Indianz.Com that Pata spoke to Dossett soon after receiving the allegation but waited nearly a month before talking to the woman who made the claim. And when Pata finally spoke to her, she made it clear she didn’t believe her version of incident, according to these colleagues.

"Make no mistake that many people who left NCAI kept records—email exchanges, contemporaneous notes, and files—that should be, and now to a limited extent have been, brought under review," said the former employee who filed the complaint this year.

The incidents demonstrate a familiar pattern at NCAI, according to former employees. When an allegation or complaint arises, Pata's reaction appears to be dismissive of the person who brought it up, they said.

A fourth former employee who recently spoke to Indianz.Com feels her situation falls into this category. She lodged a complaint after she said a senior staff member made a racially insensitive statement in her presence and in the presence of other employees.

After informing Pata about the remark, she said the executive director spoke to the senior staff member before talking to her about it. Pata then told the former employee that the senior staff member regretted the remark and would apologize to her about it.

But the former employee said Pata criticized her for not addressing the senior staff member’s insensitive remark when he said it and for bringing the complaint to her instead.

“She seemed annoyed that there was a paper trail about it,” said the former employee, who has been granted anonymity to protect her privacy.

She said the lack of human resources staff within NCAI exacerbated personnel problems that arose, problems that Pata seemed determine to address on her own and without the use of formal complaints.

Hallingstad agrees that the lack of human resources staff, duties she was assigned temporarily, contributed to a culture of uncertainty and fear as employees often struggled to address conflicts with colleagues. She thinks tribal leaders have an obligation to keep looking into the situation.

“It is still the duty of the Executive Committee to look at the broader culture at NCAI and ask if it is sustainable,” she told Indianz.Com.

NCAI was formed in Denver, Colorado, in 1944 to respond to threats against tribal sovereignty, including termination of the federal trust relationship. It has since grown to become the largest and most representative Indian organization, representing tribes from Alaska to Maine to Florida.

The organization is returning to Denver for its 75th annual convention. The meeting takes place October 21-26.

2018 Documents
Jackie Pata Suspension Resolution | External Investigation Resolution

2014 Documents
Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association Resolution | Kenaitze Tribe Resolution | Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council [Now Known as Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council] Resolution | Ute Tribe Resolution | United Tribes of North Dakota Resolution

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