In her last public engagement as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, Jackie Pata addressed the annual convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives in Anchorage on October 18, 2018. Her administrative leave at NCAI was announced two days later Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

National Congress of American Indians attempts to move past turmoil

By Acee Agoyo

The longest serving executive director in the history of the National Congress of American Indians is heading out the door after 18 years on the job.

Jackie Pata, a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes, lasted three U.S. presidential administrations and saw the U.S. Congress go through historic changes in power. But long-standing concerns about her management style finally caught up to her when a #MeToo scandal placed a cloud over the nation's largest inter-tribal advocacy organization.

The scandal led to the ouster of NCAI's highest-ranking attorney and to Pata's suspension on the eve of the organization's milestone 75th anniversary conference. Yet there was no hint of discord as NCAI President Jefferson Keel announced a changing of the guard early Tuesday evening.

“During Jackie’s tenure, NCAI grew substantially as an organization, forged partnerships within Indian Country and among outside allies, and achieved significant successes in our advocacy with Congress, the executive branch, and in the federal courts,” Keel said in a statement that started arriving in inboxes shortly after 6pm Eastern.

“NCAI is appreciative of the leadership Jackie has shown in her stewardship of the organization, and we wish her well in her future endeavors,” Keel added.

The action came exactly a week after Keel made his first public comments about the controversy since Pata had been placed on leave. During an address to NCAI's winter session in Washington, D.C., he divulged the broad outlines of what he said was a "comprehensive, independent review" into the organization's workplace environment, one that was initiated after women who were employed there came forward with complaints about the way they were treated.

"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 last Tuesday.

In her address to the Alaska Federation of Natives on October 18, 2018, Jackie Pata shared an intensely personal story about being a survivor of abuse. Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk

At the time, Keel declined to be more specific about the review even as a prominent Indian woman attorney pressed NCAI to be "transparent" as it moves forward. The latest announcement was just as murky, allowing Pata to gracefully exit without addressing whether she contributed to an “oppressive culture” -- as one former senior staffer put it -- that has seen women leave the organization in droves over the past couple of years.

“After having time for thought and reflection, I have decided to resign from my role as NCAI executive director,” Pata said after emerging from a suspension that lasted almost four months.

“Serving NCAI and tribal nations has been one of the greatest honors of my life," she said of a position she held for longer than anyone else in the organization's history. "I am proud of that service and know that I leave NCAI with a strong foundation for continued growth under new leadership.”

Despite the lack of details, word of Pata's exit was welcomed by Nicole Hallingstad, who left her position as NCAI's director of operations last August. That resignation was the development that first brought staff dissatisfaction into the public light.

“This is fantastic news," Hallingstad, who is also a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes, told Indianz.Com. "I believe it is the appropriate outcome after the lengthy suspension and investigation of NCAI’s executive director Jackie Pata,"

"NCAI’s employees had been pleading for help for years and being ignored by the executive director and the board officers," she added.

Nicole Hallingstad, a citizen 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

According to documents reviewed by Indianz.Com, some employee complaints had gone unresolved for years, with Pata playing a role by failing to follow internal policy in a way that would put such matters to rest. At least one of those incidents involved NCAI's former general counsel John Dossett, who was reassigned to a new position after an investigation into his treatment of women at the organization. He was eventually forced out of his job altogether.

"I personally spoke with Jefferson Keel and Aaron Payment in 2017 about staff safety concerns," Hallingstad said of Keel, who was elected president at NCAI's annual convention that year and of Payment, who was re-elected as vice president at the same conference. "They were aware of harassment issues nearly a full year before I finally turned in my resignation letter last August to the entire executive committee."

And though Hallingstad was encouraged by the outcome of the workplace review, she too is calling on NCAI to be more transparent about a situation that caused so many women to leave the nation's premier Indian organization in such a short amount of time.

"President Jefferson Keel assured tribes last week that NCAI ‘is indeed a safe place for women to work,'" Hallingstad said, echoing what was divulged in public. "It wasn’t safe before; what makes it safe now?"

"It would serve NCAI well to share the findings of their investigations, and how they are acting on any recommendations," Hallingstad said. "NCAI’s tribal members deserve to know their executive committee is meaningfully improving the workplace beyond a change in the executive director.”

Despite being placed on administrative leave on the eve of the 75th annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians, Jackie Pata attended the event as a delegate. She is seen here on the opening day of the convention in Denver, Colorado, on October 22, 2018. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Other women who had voiced complaints about the way they were treated also remain in the dark. They willingly participated in the workplace review -- speaking freely to Gregory Vistica, a Washington media consultant who was hired by NCAI as part of the audit -- but none so far have been told directly about the outcome, or even whether their concerns were validated. At least one former employee said she asked asked for a copy of the review but none has been provided.

Keel, who also serves as lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation, has promised to deliver a "formal report" about the review to member tribes sometime in the future. But neither he nor NCAI has had anything to add since those first public comments last week.

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

NCAI's press team, when asked for clarification three days later, declined to provide details. The organization's communications department has been among the casualties of the turmoil -- every woman who was part of that staff has since left.

The longer NCAI waits to disclose, the harder it will be for the organization to move past the controversy, according to tribal advocates who work in Indian law and policy circles in Washington. Prior to the 75th annual convention, some member tribes had called for a broader investigation but had to settle for the more limited review that was overseen by an "ad hoc committee" consisting of members of NCAI's executive board, rather than an external and more independent entity.

The unrest has contributed to concerns about NCAI's effectiveness. At the 75th meeting, one leader challenged Keel to be a stronger advocate for tribes and their citizens, especially during a time of great uncertainty in Washington.

"I think all of us in Indian Country are fed up with the song and dance," council member Shaun Chapoose of the Ute Tribe said at that meeting in Denver, Colorado, where NCAI first came together in 1944 to address threats to their sovereign rights.

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

Yet those doubts persist, all the way through to the more recent meeting in D.C. Julian Bear Runner, the new president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, told Indianz.Com that he was having second thoughts about rejoining NCAI after Keel told him he shouldn't have shown up to a White House listening session that had been billed as a historic meeting among sovereign nations.

“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 said after that session, which was the first of its kind in the Donald Trump era. “I have less there, with my faith and my belief in NCAI thrown at me.”

Keel ended up apologizing to Bear Runner for his "choice of words" at the session, which was overseen by mid-level officials from the White House at the same hotel where NCAI held its gathering. He also said he would visit tribes in Great Plains states like South Dakota -- where dissatisfaction with Pata goes back to 2014 -- to "discuss their concerns and how we can work together to address the grave challenges Indian Country is facing."

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

The complaints about Pata haven't come from just one region, however. Tribal leaders in Montana, North Dakota, Utah, Wyoming and even some from her home state of Alaska previously called on her to step down, accusing her of going against their interests and failing to address their needs.

The tribal resolutions were part of a broader campaign to replace Pata in the months following NCAI's 2013 annual convention, when an entirely new slate of elected officers was eager to bring on a new executive director. The officers even began reaching out to potential replacements -- almost all of them women -- but quickly ran into some turbulence.

"I heard you are after my job," Pata told one of the potential candidates, according to two people were told about a phone call this prominent Indian woman advocate received from the executive director.

NCAI's leadership ended up dropping the matter altogether after realizing that replacing Pata was going to be more difficult than they had envisioned.

A few months later in 2014, Pata was suspended after she was accused of misusing her position in a highly controversial matter affecting her husband, who remains employed at NCAI, and his standing within his own tribe, the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians. She firmly denied any wrongdoing in an email seen by Indianz.Com and was only placed on administrative leave for a week.

Her recent suspension, announced just as attendees were arriving in Colorado for the 2018 convention, ended up lasting longer. Yet just like the first one, she appears to have emerged unscathed, with the upbeat announcement on Tuesday opening the door for her to pursue other opportunities without a serious blemish on her record.

Articles written by a former NCAI staffer who worked for the organization for a brief period over a decade ago were posted on an obscure site based in New York, suggesting Pata was being recruited to run for U.S. Senate. No mention was made of her suspension.

But Pata, who decamped to Alaska after being placed on leave, appears to be looking for a different kind of opportunity. Tlingit and Haida sources told Indianz.Com that she has been interested in a job at their tribe's housing agency, where she previously served as executive director.

According to the sources, Pata was tentatively offered a much higher-level post -- that of president / chief executive officer -- at the Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority but it was contingent on her surviving the administrative leave. That hurdle appears to have been cleared when she unceremoniously returned to work following the conclusion of the winter session last week, and after President Keel declared NCAI to be a "safe place" for women to work.

Pata serves as an "ex-officio" member of the board of commissioners for the Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority, which receives millions of dollars in federal funds and oversees assets totaling tens of millions of dollars, according to a recent financial statement. She's due to participate in a meeting of the board on March 8, according to a notice.

But for now, Pata -- who joined NCAI in 2001 following the ouster of her predecessor, another prominent Indian woman -- is staying put while the organization prepares for a new executive director, whoever that might be. The "transition" period is expected to last up to 90 days. Keel gave no indication of when a replacement might come on board.

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

Join the Conversation
Only on Indianz.Com: NCAI Executive Council Winter Session #ECWS19
National Congress of American Indians announces departure of executive director (February 19, 2019)
National Congress of American Indians vows change after declaring workplace 'safe' for women (February 15, 2019)
President of National Congress of American Indians issues apology (February 15, 2019)
Rosebud Sioux Tribe issues statement about White House listening session (February 15, 2019)
White House listening session turns messy as one tribe walks out in protest (February 14, 2019)
Twitter Recap: Day two of National Congress of American Indians winter session (February 12, 2019)
Native leaders deliver rebuke of Trump administration at State of Indian Nations (February 11, 2019)
Twitter Recap: The 17th annual State of Indian Nations address (February 11, 2019)
Tribal leaders gather in nation's capital amid threat of another shutdown (February 11, 2019)

Only on Indianz.Com: NCAI in Turmoil #MeToo
National Congress of American Indians loses more women staffers (December 12, 2018)
National Congress of American Indians opens annual convention amid controversy (October 23, 2018)
National Congress of American Indians suspends highest-ranking staffer (October 22, 2018)
National Congress of American Indians defends handling of #MeToo scandal (October 11, 2018)
Former employees take aim at National Congress of American Indians in #MeToo scandal (October 9, 2018)
Tribes demand accountability from National Congress of American Indians (October 5, 2018)
National Congress of American Indians ousts senior attorney after #MeToo outcry (October 3, 2018)
Harold Frazier: Where are the Indians in the National Congress of American Indians? (September 28, 2018)
National Congress of American Indians under #MeToo fire (September 25, 2018)
Prominent Indian Country attorney reassigned after #MeToo allegations (August 31, 2018)
Trending in News
More Headlines