President Jefferson Keel of the National Congress of American Indians, at podium, thanks well-wishers during a reception at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., on February 13, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

National Congress of American Indians vows change after declaring workplace 'safe' for women

By Acee Agoyo

The leader of the National Congress of American Indians is promising more transparency in hopes of overcoming a controversy that continues to overshadow the organization's efforts to advocate for the needs of tribes and their citizens.

In an address during NCAI's winter session in Washington, D.C., this week, President Jefferson Keel revealed the broad outlines of what he said was a "comprehensive, independent review" into the organization's workplace environment. He said "outside experts" spent months looking at how allegations of harassment, intimidation and misconduct among staff had been handled in the past.

"First, we wanted to make sure that NCAI is a safe place for women to work," Keel said of a process initiated at the request of tribal leaders following Indianz.Com's first report into the matter almost six months ago.

"Based on the findings of that review, I can assure you that it is indeed a safe place for women to work," Keel said on Tuesday.

But in addressing the controversy for the first time in public since a milestone conference last October, Keel declined to provide specifics about a scandal that led to the ouster of its senior attorney and the suspension of its highest-ranking staffer. He did not explain, for example, whether any allegations made by women who have left the organization in droves were ever substantiated or, for that matter, whether their voices were validated.

He also did not discuss an issue that was on the minds of just about everyone at the session: the whereabouts of executive director Jackie Pata, who was placed on leave prior to the 75th annual convention amid doubts about her management practices.

Instead -- after being questioned by a prominent Indian woman attorney -- Keel only repeated what he had said earlier about NCAI being a "safe place." That answer did not appear to sit well with Loretta Tuell, a citizen of the Nez Perce Tribe who has worked in law and policy circles for nearly three decades.

So Tuell kept pressing for more, albeit in a diplomatic matter that was characteristic of her years of experience, which includes overseeing the staff of Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Though virtually no one was left in the meeting room as the lunch hour approached, she stressed the need for NCAI to be accountable for the sovereign nations it is charged with representing.

"I would use the word 'transparent,'" Tuell told Keel after he again said NCAI was taking "actions" to resolve the crisis.

"The more transparent you can be about what those actions are, what they entail .. I think would bode well for NCAI in the future," Tuell said.

"We don't want to lose step with our positive message by talking about the messiness in-house," she added.

Indianz.Com on YouTube: 'Transparency' and National Congress of American Indians

Keel, who also serves as lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation, immediately embraced Tuell's call for accountability, up to a point. He did not, for instance, commit to releasing the results of the review into the organization's workplace culture. Instead, he said a "formal report" about the investigation would be delivered to member tribes sometime in the future.

"I think you'll see that as we move forward, we'll be completely transparent," he said.

The refusal to release the results of the review, though, do not square with Keel's declaration that NCAI is a "safe place" for women, according to former employees who told Indianz.Com that they willingly participated in the investigation in the hopes that they would receive a copy of it, or at least see the organization own up to its past actions.

"There’s something that does not seem right, or there is more to it," said one former employee who left NCAI after lodging a complaint about her treatment in the workforce.

"If the report says [NCAI] was a 'safe place' why didn’t they lift the administration leave" on Pata, the employee wondered.

Indianz.Com has continued to honor the requests of several former employees to keep their identities private. All remain active in the field of Indian affairs and fear losing out on educational and employment opportunities if their names and the precise nature of their grievances are disclosed without their consent.

These former employees also said they were surprised to hear Keel declare NCAI to be "safe" because they had spent countless hours sharing their personal stories to the contrary with Gregory Vistica, a Washington media consultant who was hired by the organization to help conduct the review. They were confident that their voices were being heard and were eager to participate in an exercise they felt would bring about positive change.

Vistica reached out to upwards of two dozen current and former employees -- women and men alike -- since November, according to those who were contacted. In addition to speaking with him on the phone, some shared e-mails, documents and other information they believed would help shed light on the way NCAI handled past allegations of misconduct among staff.

But after learning about Keel's comments, as well as his exchange with Tuell, some former employees don't think NCAI is willing to admit that problems may have occurred and have contributed to widespread staff turnover. What else -- besides an “oppressive culture” -- could explain the loss of almost every member of the organization's policy staff, as well as the nearly every person in the communications department, in the past two years, they observed.

According to Keel, the actions being taken by NCAI include making changes to its "organizational structure." Though he did not explain what that entails, he said doing so would ensure that NCAI's internal policies are being followed.

"We did have some findings of some areas where we need immediate review," Keel said.

For example, Keel said NCAI is going to do a better job at addressing employee grievances, an issue that has contributed to the current crisis. Some former workers have alleged that their complaints went unresolved for years even after managers like Pata were repeatedly asked to follow up and carry out the process for handling such complaints.

At one point, before Keel returned to lead NCAI, members of the organization's executive board -- the president, vice president, treasurer and secretary -- were also told about allegations of misconduct. The employee who disclosed that complaints weren't being resolved was forced out within two months. No explanation was provided for his departure.

NCAI also never explained why John Dossett, a non-Indian attorney, was assigned to a different position within the organization after serving 23 years as general counsel. Only after Indianz.Com published additional reports did Keel confirm that Dossett was the subject of "two specific allegations" of sexual harassment. He was eventually forced out altogether amid an outcry from member tribes and advocates for Native women.

"Personnel actions -- we don't discuss in public. They become news fodder," Keel said.

In addition to making changes to NCAI's structure, Keel said a "strategic plan" is in the works. He said it would identify the organization's "strengths and weaknesses" and help correct any weaknesses that arise.

"You'll be seeing those [changes] and we’ll be sending updates as they come, as they occur," Keel said.

"We just completed the review," he stressed, implying that NCAI was still digesting the results. One former employee, however, said Vistica told her directly that he was going to finish it before the end of January, well before the winter session in Washington this week.

The session in fact started off on a strong note. Keel delivered the 17th annual State of Indian Nations on Monday to rave reviews for his willingness to hold the Trump administration accountable for a series of tribal policy debacles. Social media metrics shared by NCAI showed that the speech reached nearly 5 million people online and was the number one trending topic on Twitter for the Washington, D.C., area that morning.

But by Wednesday afternoon, Keel was stumbling in NCAI's role as a key advocate in D.C. for tribes and their interests. In the face of a direct challenge from Julian Bear Runner, the new president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, he eventually admitted that he didn't treat the leader of a fellow sovereign nation with enough respect.

During a closed session that was run by inexperienced officials from the White House, Keel told Bear Runner that he shouldn't have come to Washington for what had been billed as a historic meeting, the first of its kind in the Trump era.

“I had a lot of hope, and I had a lot of faith in coming to NCAI as an entity to help to take on our challenges in the face of the United States government,” Bear Runner told Indianz.Com in an interview later in the evening as Keel was basking in praise and mingling with key members of Congress during a pre-planned reception at the National Museum of the American Indian.

“I have less there, with my faith and my belief in NCAI thrown at me," said Bear Runner, who ended up going back home to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota earlier than anticipated.

White House listening session with William F. Crozer- Special Assistant to President Trump & Deputy Director at the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, Tara Sweeney- Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, NCAI President Jefferson Keel. President Bear Runner spoke the truth for our Oglala Lakota Oyaté✊

Posted by Julian Bear Runner for Oglala Nation President on Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Bear Runner, whose tribe only recently reconnected with NCAI after helping to establish the organization back in 1944, said he was reconsidering that membership. Another leader from the Great Sioux Nation also did the same in statement that questioned NCAI's effectiveness and capabilities.

"If NCAI officials cannot treat the elected officials any tribal nations with the proper respect and in a professional manner, then the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and all other tribes should evaluate whether to continue our support for NCAI and whether or not NCAI membership in in their best interests," President Rodney M. Bordeaux of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe said in a statement to Indianz.Com on Friday mid-morning.

Keel, who previously served two terms as president of NCAI before returning to the leadership role in 2017, was quick to respond. He issued a statement only about an hour later, explaining what he is doing to smooth relations over with member tribes and be more accountable to them.

"I don’t want any tribal leader to feel like coming to Washington DC is a waste of their time," Keel said in the statement to "Representing our citizens with the federal government and other tribal nations is one of our most important responsibilities as leaders.'

"I have apologized directly to President Bear Runner for my choice of words," he added. "I look forward to traveling to the Great Plains to meet with tribal leaders to discuss their concerns and how we can work together to address the grave challenges Indian Country is facing."

But as for the turmoil within NCAI itself, the organization remains tight-lipped, at least for now. When asked for a timeline about ongoing and future actions, as well as the status of executive director Jackie Pata, the press team demurred as the holiday weekend approached.

"As was reported to the general membership this week, NCAI will be providing an update on the organization in the near future," the press team said in the statement on Friday afternoon. "We do not have anything additional to add at this point."

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