President Jefferson Keel addresses National Congress of American Indians 75th annual convention in Denver, Colorado, on October 22. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

National Congress of American Indians opens annual convention amid controversy

By Acee Agoyo

DENVER, Colorado -- The National Congress of American Indians opened a milestone convention here on Monday with another defense of the organization's handling of a #MeToo scandal and other employee complaints.

Speaking in the city where NCAI first came together 75 years ago, President Jefferson Keel directly addressed the controversy that arose after Indianz.Com began reporting on the issue almost two months ago. He acknowledged almost immediately the turmoil that has eroded confidence in the nation's oldest and largest inter-tribal organization.

"As you know, NCAI has been in the news lately and it's not for the best reasons," Keel told fellow tribal leaders not long after opening the 75th annual convention in a hotel in downtown Denver.

But Keel insisted that NCAI took action to address allegations of staff misconduct long before Indianz.Com's first report on August 31, which detailed the existence of a #MeToo investigation involving John Dossett, who was reassigned and then eventually ousted from his role as the organization's longest-serving and highest-ranking attorney.

"NCAI doesn't condone harassment of any kind in the workplace, nor have we, nor will we, tolerate it anymore," Keel said. “We will take action when it occurs in the future just like we did in the situation at hand."

Keel also said the tribal leaders who serve on NCAI's executive committee met ahead of the convention and placed Jackie Pata, the organization's executive director, on administrative leave. She has been suspended from her post, which she has held since 2001, pending an investigation into the allegations of staff misconduct.

According to Keel, the recommendation to suspend Pata was initially made by an "ad hoc committee” of tribal leaders who came together after Indianz.Com's first report back in August. They are continuing to look into how the executive director handled and responded to employee complaints, which one former senior staffer said has contributed to high rates of turnover.

Keel, though, did not address Pata's continued presence in Denver. She is still participating in the convention, sitting in the section reserved for NCAI delegates from Alaska -- her home state -- during the entirety of Monday's session. She also appeared at a Violence Against Women Act task force meeting on Sunday, just a couple of days after sharing her own intensely personal story about being a survivor of abuse.

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Jacqueline Pata of National Congress of American Indians addresses the Alaska Federation of Natives

Keel also did not entirely explain what happened to Dossett, who had worked at NCAI since 1995, serving as its general counsel, a role with widespread influence in Indian law and policy. Despite his reassignment as "senior" attorney this summer, he was still scheduled to appear at the convention to talk about his high-profile work on U.S. Supreme Court cases affecting tribal rights. He was only taken off the agenda after he was ousted from NCAI on October 3.

The lack of clarity have some in Indian Country seeking further action. While Harold Frazier, the chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said he was pleased with Pata's suspension, he said it wasn't enough.

"I am disappointed with the fact that there is not an independent investigation being done," Frazier, who unsuccessfully ran for president against Keel at last year's convention, said on Monday. "There are still some foxes in the hen house that are part of the problem."

"There is much more work that needs to be done to make NCAI a powerful organization capable of protecting future generations," said Frazier.

The accountability sentiment was shared by Shaun Chapoose, a council member from the Ute Tribe, whose leadership has previously called on NCAI to hire a new executive director. As the first day's proceedings were about to close, he issued a challenge to Keel, urging the organization to take a much stronger stance on critical issues.

"I think all of us in Indian Country are fed up with the song and dance," asserted Chapoose, who noted that tribes are fighting the same controversies -- including termination of trust lands and takings of their trust resources -- that NCAI was supposed to address when it first came together here in 1944.

"I don't say this to berate you, or to say you're not doing a good job, but you're not doing a good job, " Chapoose said, speaking to President Keel. "We're the tribal leaders and we're being muzzled all the time because we speak the way we speak. We're told to 'play nice' with you."

"Playing nice don't work," Chapoose said to applause.

During his president's report, Keel said NCAI has been listening to the concerns. In agreeing to suspend Pata on Saturday, he said portions of a resolution submitted by Chairman Frazier and another one by Kevin DuPuis, the chairman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, were adopted in hopes of improving accountability and transparency.

Frazier's resolution called for Pata to be suspended. DuPuis's resolution sought an independent investigation into NCAI's handling of additional issues, not just the allegations of staff misconduct that are being reviewed by the "ad hoc committee."

Additionally, the Kenaitze Tribe, from Pata's home state of Alaska, submitted a third resolution that requests an "independent investigation into recent workplace concerns regarding the executive leadership of NCAI." The organization's executive leadership consists of Pata, plus the four officers -- president, vice president, secretary and treasurer.

Like the Utes and others, Kenaitze previously called for NCAI to find a new executive director.

The three tribal resolutions were all listed for consideration during the conference. Discussion typically takes place during NCAI subcommittee meetings, where media is not allowed, throughout the week but delegates sometimes bring them up during the main assembly. A final report on the status of the resolutions is due to be provided on Friday.

NCAI's convention continues on Tuesday. The agenda includes discussion of threats to the Indian Child Welfare Act, protecting trust lands, economic development and marijuana in Indian Country.

The conference concludes on Friday.

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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