Jefferson Keel serves as president of the National Congress of American Indians. Photo: NCAI

National Congress of American Indians defends handling of #MeToo scandal

President Jefferson Keel promises change after outcry
Amid turmoi, NCAI fills vacant deputy director position
By Kevin Abourezk

The leader of the country‘s largest and oldest inter-tribal organization is defending the group’s handling of allegations of sexual harassment against its former lead attorney, saying it has addressed the complaints and plans to hire outside experts to further improve its workplace culture.

Jefferson Keel, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, sent a letter to tribal leaders on Thursday, responding to a series of Indianz.Com reports that have shed light on the #MeToo scandal and have quoted former NCAI employees who have criticized the organization’s handling of sexual harassment complaints.

“I understand that you would like greater transparency, and that you may be frustrated by our inability to legally share more details about specific allegations or personnel matters,” Keel said.

“To some, our silence has raised questions about whether we are adequately addressing the situation. I want to assure you that we are," Keel continued. "NCAI is committed to providing a safe and supportive workplace for all of its employees.” [Full Letter: ]

The sexual harassment complaints -- Keel said there were "two specific allegations" -- have already cost John Dossett, NCAI's longest-serving attorney, his job and are threatening to engulf another high-ranking staffer.

On October 3, the same day he lost his job, Dossett sent a lengthy statement – using his NCAI email account – to a wide audience of tribal leaders, Native women advocates and key staff members on Capitol Hill. Jacqueline Pata, executive director for NCAI, told Indianz.Com later that day that she had been blindsided by Dossett’s statement.

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

Keel confirmed the same in his new letter. Dossett emailed his statement "without NCAI’s approval or authorization," the president wrote, and "no longer works for the organization."

NCAI 75th Anniversary Historical Photo Album

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

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 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.

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 Keel, Pokagon Chairman Matthew Wesaw said his tribe was 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 have 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.

In his third letter on the issue since Indianz.Com began publishing its stories, Keel said NCAI has hired an outside expert to train staff and board members to conduct workplace misconduct investigations. The organization also has hired a human resources consultant to review protocols and train staff to facilitate future external reviews. NCAI also has hired an outside firm to conduct an audit of the organization’s workplace culture and make recommendations, Keel said.

The NCAI executive committee also has established an ad hoc committee made up of its own members to review how the organization has addressed allegations of misconduct. In addition, NCAI also has held trainings on harassment and complaint policies, including day-long training for supervisors.

“Many of these actions were initiated before the first news article was published, and some have evolved based upon the concerns and suggestions you have shared with us,” Keel said.

And he criticized those who have publicly shared details about specific harassment allegations, including Dossett and those who have spoken to the media.

“While he and others have elected to release public statements detailing claims and allegations and to share confidential internal documents, they have done so without NCAI’s approval or authorization,” Keel said. “These actions have violated the privacy of NCAI employees, and are contrary to the manner in which staff are treated when they raise concerns at NCAI.”

But Keel generally addressed "two specific allegations of sexual harassment" against Dossett, saying one of them had been the subject of an "earlier internal investigation." That remark seemed to contradict a statement he made in a September 25 letter to tribal leaders in which he said NCAI’s "first step" when it learned about the harassment allegations was to retain an outside legal expert to conduct an investigation.

He said the outside legal expert spoke with current and former employees and made recommendations to NCAI, which promptly implemented them.

“NCAI will resolve these issues through this process, and NCAI will emerge from it stronger than before,” Keel said. “I thank you for giving me your time and ask for your patience as we address these issues in a caring and purposeful manner. Indian Country deserves a strong NCAI and that is what we will provide.”

Amid the turmoil, NCAI is filling a high-ranking post. Ahniwake Rose, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, confirmed to Indianz.Com on Thursday that she will be joining NCAI as its deputy director, essentially the second-in-command at the organization.

Rose, who also has Muscogee (Creek) Nation ancestry, comes to NCAI from the National Indian Education Association, where she has served as executive director since 2012. She previously worked as the policy director at NCAI, according to her biography.

NCAI's deputy director position was vacant following the recent retirement of Robert Holden, who is Choctaw and Chickasaw and had worked at NCAI for 33 years, according to an appreciation resolution that was adopted by tribal leaders last October.

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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