Kevin Allis, seen here at a National Congress of American Indians event in March 2014, has been hired as the organization's first Chief Executive Officer. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

National Congress of American Indians enters 'new chapter' with new executive

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The National Congress of American Indians is entering what President Jefferson Keel calls a "new chapter" with the hiring of its first Chief Executive Officer.

Kevin Allis, a citizen of the Forest County Potawatomi Community, comes to NCAI with a strong background in tribal economic development. He previously served as executive director of Native American Contractors Association and as board chairman of Potawatomi Business Development Corporation, his tribe's economic arm.

More recently, he ran Thunderbird Strategies, a government relations firm that engaged in lobbying and other activities on behalf of clients in Indian Country. He also spent eight years practicing law and even worked as a police officer in Baltimore, Maryland, where he has made his home for more than 20 years.

“NCAI, in its 75 years, has defined, defended, and continues to champion efforts to promote Native resiliency and tribal sovereignty," Allis said in an announcement on Wednesday. "I am sincerely humbled by the honor to lead this organization, and appreciate the opportunity and challenge to continue the great work of this historic organization in strengthening tribal sovereignty and safeguarding our traditions and customs for generations to come."

Allis replaces Jackie Pata, a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes who served as NCAI's executive director for a record 18 years. She resigned earlier this year after long-standing complaints about her management and her handling of a sexual harassment scandal brought her down.

But NCAI is ready to move past the turmoil, which eroded confidence in the nation's oldest and largest inter-tribal organization. As CEO, Allis is going to hit the ground running, with a conference that kicks off in less than two weeks.

"As we embark on a new chapter with the hiring of our first CEO, we are pleased to welcome Kevin Allis to the National Congress of American Indians," said President Keel. "We are fortunate to benefit from Kevin’s considerable expertise and look forward to working together to protect and advance tribal sovereignty,”

“We look forward to formally introducing our new CEO at NCAI’s Mid Year Conference and Marketplace, June 24-27 in Sparks, Nevada," said Keel, who recently announced that he will be stepping down from his role as Lieutenant Governor of the Chickasaw Nation.

Among those eager for NCAI's new era is Suzan Shown Harjo. The Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee activist served as organization's executive director during the turbulent Ronald Reagan years, when budget cuts and policy actions threatened to undermine the federal government's trust and treaty responsibilities, a situation with parallels to the current Donald Trump era.

"It is fitting that NCAI should announce its choice for a new Chief Executive Officer on the eve of the June 25 Native holiday of resistance, strategy and unity on the Plains of the Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho Nations," Harjo, who received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom for her decades of work in Indian law and policy, told Indianz.Com.

"Little Bighorn Day reminds us of what can be achieved if we stand our ground with dignity and respect for Mother Earth and all her children, but also that we never can take for granted the victories or sacrifices of our ancestors or expect to prevail in our endeavors without tremendous effort and consideration for one another," said Harjo. "A good beginning in this season of gathering together for renewal and revitalization. Welcome and all good wishes to NCAI’s first Potawatomi son as Chief Executive Officer."

Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee) is a former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. Photo: U.S. National Archives

Lance Morgan, the president and chief executive officer of Ho-Chunk Inc., one of the leading economic development corporations in Indian Country, also welcomed the announcement. He served as chairman of the Native American Contractors Association when Allis was the executive director.

"Economic development has been an area of increasing importance to Indian Country and I think Kevin will bring a lot of experience in the economic arena to NCAI, which should help broaden NCAI’s overall impact on tribes," Morgan, who is a citizen of the Winnebago Tribe, told Indianz.Com. The website is owned by Ho-Chunk Inc. but operates independently and does not play a role in the corporation's activities.

Despite the well wishes, NCAI remains in a state of transition. Looming on the organization's calendar is the annual convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this October, when delegates will be electing a new slate of leaders, including the four executive board positions -- the President, 1st Vice President, Recording Secretary and Treasurer.

Keel, who plans to retain a leadership role within the Chickasaw Nation, has not publicly said whether he is running for re-election. But Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, who has been outspoken critic of NCAI's handling of policy challenges in the Trump era, is already campaigning for the job, eager to make changes at the highest levels.

"In many meetings with the government, they try to divide us," Frazier told leaders of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) during their recent meeting in the nation's capital.

"They give us crumbs and try to get us to fight over them, but we have a choice to look beyond that and fight to stay united as one nation, the Native American nation," Frazier said to USET, which represents 27 tribal nations from Maine to Florida to Texas. USET has developed an alliance with the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, which represents 16 tribal nations in Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota and asked the chairman to run for NCAI's presidency.

Nicole Hallingstad, a former high-ranking staffer at NCAI, is also angling for change. She stepped down from her post as director of operations last summer, warning tribal leaders of employee dissatisfaction and of a climate in which Native women have left the organization in droves.

"NCAI now has a new Chief Executive Officer with a hard road ahead to regain trust and credibility for the organization," Hallingstad, who is a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes, told Indianz.Com.

With the election on the horizon, she added: "It’s also time for a hard look at the NCAI board officers. The accountability has to go right to the top. They ignored too much for too long on their watch."

An investigation by Indianz.Com, the initial results of which were published last August, spoke of employee misconduct complaints that went unresolved under Pata's management for years. When another high-ranking colleague of Hallingstad's went directly to the NCAI board officers with his own warning, he was fired.

As Indianz.Com reported on the reassignment of NCAI's longest-serving attorney John Dossett, he questioned Hallingstad's "motives" for coming forward. And as he was being shown the door after being investigated internally for sexual harassment, he labeled her as a troublemaker with an "axe to grind."

"Recent events at NCAI have proven the power of speaking up," Hallingstad said. "For anyone who feels harassed in the workplace, report it. Document it. It can be terrifying, I know. But the paper trail lays the foundation for change -- it is the data that mounts and becomes irrefutable."

Following Pata's announcement of her departure, NCAI put out the call for a new Chief Executive Officer on March 8. The initial closing date for applications was April 8, but it was extended for a couple more weeks, to April 22.

One candidate who was contacted by NCAI was told of being a finalist for the job but was asked to wait for an interview because of the extended deadline. This person was informed that more time was needed for other applicants to finalize their submissions.

A different applicant was contacted and informed by NCAI about not advancing to the finalist round. But just a couple of weeks ago, this same candidate was asked to come to the Embassy of Tribal Nations in Washington, D.C., which serves as the organization's headquarters, for an interview.

Some finalists were at the Embassy early last week for their interviews. At least one candidate was told as soon as last Wednesday that the job was being offered to someone else, leading this person to believe that NCAI was eager to select someone for the position as soon as possible before the upcoming mid-year session.

Allis was among the finalists and he was the one who was offered the job. When asked about his selection by Indianz.Com, he said on Tuesday that he "going to refrain from comment until President Keel makes the official notice. I don’t want to get ahead of my boss."

Pata, who joined NCAI in 2001, is now serving as president and chief executive officer of Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority in Alaska. Her hiring there was announced on April 12.


Posted by Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority on Friday, April 12, 2019
Jackie Pata was announced as the president and chief executive officer of Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority in Alaska on April 12, 2019.

“I’ve been away from home for 20 years," Pata said during Tlingit-Haida's 48th annual assembly in Juneau as the event came to a close.

"It is my time," she said. "It is my privilege to come home."

Pata had been suspended last October, on the eve of NCAI's milestone 75th anniversary conference. An "ad hoc committee" of tribal leaders was appointed to look into allegations of staff misconduct under her watch.

The review was concluded earlier this year. In February, during NCAI's winter sesesion in D.C., President Keel announced that it determined that the organization is "a safe place for women to work."

The results of the review have not been provided to the public at large. Keel followed it up with a March 8 letter that outlined the transition to the first Chief Executive Officer.

With the new hire on board, NCAI has not said whether it will rename the position of Deputy Director. It's currently held by Ahniwake Rose, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who came to the organization after serving as the executive director of the National Indian Education Association for several years.

Rose has hinted that she might be looking for a job elsewhere. She's already asked at least one colleague in Indian Country to serve as a reference for future employment opportunities.

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Jefferson Keel enters new phase of service in Indian Country after battle with cancer (May 10, 2019)
National Congress of American Indians names new communications director (February 27, 2019)
Tribes remain wary of Trump administration despite apparent concessions on policy disasters (February 21, 2019)
Timeline: National Congress of American Indians in turmoil and transition (February 22, 2019)
National Congress of American Indians attempts to move past turmoil (February 20, 2019)
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)
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