Indianz. Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Fawn Sharp at National Congress of American Indians #NCAIAnnual19

'This is our time': National Congress of American Indians elects new leadership

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico -- Members of the National Congress of American Indians made history here by choosing a woman as their president for only the third time since the organization's founding in 1944.

Fawn Sharp, the president of the Quinault Nation, easily won election to NCAI's highest office during the group's 76th annual convention last Thursday. She defeated three other candidates -- all men -- with an resounding 62 percent of the vote.

"At this moment, I am incredibly overwhelmed with it," Sharp told Indianz.Com in a hallway at the Albuquerque Convention Center after the results were released. "I'm still in disbelief."

"I'm also incredibly honored to be here at this place, at this time," Sharp added, noting that she was following in the footsteps of one of her mentors -- the legendary Joe DeLaCruz, a former president of her tribe who served as president of NCAI during the early 1980s.

"I feel at this point in time we're also bringing the strength of all of Indian Country together, with our cultures, our songs, our dances," Sharp continued. "I'm looking forward to tapping into the strength and brain trust all across Indian Country because this is our time. This is a new day and a new chapter."

Indianz.Com Video: Fawn Sharp at National Congress of American Indians #NCAIAnnual19

Flanked by a large delegation of supporters, many from her tribe and from the Pacific Northwest, Sharp quickly put her words into action by entering NCAI's general assembly to the somber notes of Quinault singers and drummers. Taking the stage as president-elect, she vowed to unite the first Americans as they overcome challenges in their communities, in Washington, D.C., and even around the world.

“Nothing will stop us," Sharp told the crowd gathered in New Mexico's largest city. "Together we are strong. Together we are unstoppable."

Sharp's successful campaign was backed by her fellow women trailblazers. Veronica Homer (Shasta/Mohave) who served as NCAI's president in the late 1970s, and Sue Masten, a former chair of the Yurok Tribe who led the organization in the early 2000s, called their sister a "proven, articulate tribal leader with substantive experience throughout Indian Country" in an endorsement as voters cast their ballots.

Despite the widespread support, Sharp's path to victory wasn't an easy one. She ran for president two years ago and narrowly lost the vote to Jefferson Keel, who decided not to seek another term after stepping down from his leadership position within the Chickasaw Nation, where he had served as lieutenant governor for more than two decades.

Keel's return to power -- he had served two terms as president during the George W. Bush era -- was marked by turmoil. NCAI's highest ranking attorney, who worked at the organization for more than 20 years, was ousted amid allegations of sexual harassment that are now the subject of a lawsuit in federal court in which Indianz.Com's parent corporation is one of the defendants.

Following scrutiny of NCAI's workforce culture, the organization parted ways with Jackie Pata, who served as executive director for a record 18 years. Sharp, in campaigning for president, emphasized the need to hold everyone -- including leadership -- accountable but also said she would look for ways to "encourage good behavior" in order to "strengthen" the organization.

"As the president of an organization, it is also important not only to lead by example, but to have a clear, clear set of expectations," Sharp said during a debate among the four presidential candidates last Wednesday. The debate was hosted by Indian Country, which is owned by NCAI but operates independently.

The other candidates seeking NCAI's presidency expressed similar ideals of accountability and transparency in the days leading up to the election last Thursday. All were forceful in explaining their visions for an organization that remains the largest inter-tribal advocacy group in the U.S., yet one which has seen a loss in standing among Indian nations.

Presidential candidates for the National Congress of American Indians are taking part in a debate at NCAI 2019.

Posted by Kevin Abourezk on Wednesday, October 23, 2019
Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: National Congress of American Indians Presidential Debate - October 23, 2019

Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, who came in second in balloting, is among those critical of NCAI's direction. Echoing some of the same principles he outlined during his first run for the presidency in 2017, he said the organization has lost its way since being founded in 1944 as a defender of Indian rights.

“If I’m elected NCAI president, culture will run NCAI not corporations," Frazier said in his campaign speech during the general assembly last Wednesday. "It will be run by members not funders. Your voices will be heard.”

Marshall Pierite, who came in third in the race, pointed out that fewer than 200 tribes -- out of potentially 600-plus federally and state recognized nations -- were registered for the convention, which lasted five days. During the debate, he said NCAI must work harder to be more inclusive of Indian Country.

"Sovereignty in action is bringing the people together," Pierite, who serves as chairman of the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe, said in reference to the theme of NCAI's meeting. "It's speaking with a united voice."

Shaun Chapoose, a council member from the Ute Tribe, shared similar concerns during the debate. He said he got into the race in order to return power to the members who make up NCAI.

"A lot of the leaders felt like they weren't being heard," said Chapoose, who came in fourth. Both he and Pierite, who only recently returned to an official position within his tribe, were seeking office in NCAI for the first time.

Dissatisfaction with NCAI spilled over into the race for vice president. A record four candidates ran for the office, and starting anew emerged as a common theme among them.

“We need to get NCAI back in the right direction. We need to come back together as one," Joe Byrd, the speaker of the Cherokee Nation Council, said during his campaign speech last Wednesday, translating words from the Cherokee language.

Lance Gumbs, the vice chair of the Shinnecock Nation, said he ran for office out of "frustration." Serving as an area vice president for NCAI's Northeast region gave him insight into one reason why some have walked away from the organization.

"I felt that we were not listening to you, the tribal leaders," Gumbs said during his campaign speech on the general assembly stage.

Julian Bear Runner, the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, experienced the disconnect first hand. Earlier this year, he walked out a meeting featuring NCAI and the White House after feeling disrespected by then-president Jefferson Keel, who later offered an apology for his choice of words during the heated event.

“The only way you can change something is to be a part of the change," Bear Runner said during his campaign speech as he explained why he returned to NCAI for the convention. "It’s time for a new generation of leadership."

But in the end, voters went with a familiar figure. Aaron Payment, the chairperson of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, emerged victorious after a second round of balloting against Byrd. Gumbs was knocked out in the first round.

The outcome, though, was tight. Two years ago, Payment won the vice presidency with 70 percent of the vote. This time around, he said he had to "work for it" -- he defeated Byrd by less than 3 percentage points.

"NCAI is what we make it," Payment said after winning another term as vice president. "This organization is representative of each of the tribal nations. We will work harder to get other tribes to come back. But we need to have a positive opinion. We need to work to make NCAI what we want it to be."

"We are the strongest and oldest Native organization in this nation," Payment continued. "We will continue to build that."

Sharp and Payment were sworn into office on Friday as NCAI's convention came to a close. Joining the pair on the executive committee are Juana Majel-Dixon, a leader from the Pauma Band of Luiseno Indians, who won re-election as secretary against one candidate.

“I”m going to continue to mentor the young blood leaders," Majel-Dixon said in a nod to her opponent, Quintin Lopez, a citizen of the Tohono O'odham Nation who made his first run for NCAI office after working with the organization since his teenage years.

A newcomer to the executive committee is Clinton Lageson, who was named treasurer of NCAI after being the sole candidate for the position. He serves as treasurer of the Kenaitze Tribe, whose leadership has been critical of the organization's management in the past.

"I want to thank Ron Allen," Lageson said of NCAI's most recent treasurer, another steady figure within the organization. "I know that I will be calling you quite a bit," he told Allen, who serves as chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe.

The four executive board officers are joined by vice presidents and alternative vice presidents for the 12 regions of Indian Country. According to NCAI, a record number of women are serving in these positions -- about half of the total number.

Fawn Sharp addresses the National Congress of American Indians 76th annual convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico, after winning election as president of the organization on October 24, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Join the Conversation
Trending in News
More Headlines