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Dante Desiderio
Dante Desiderio, then serving as executive director of NAFOA, addresses the winter session of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., on February 12, 2020. The meeting was NCAI’s last in-person session prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic a month later Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
National Congress of American Indians heads into meeting amid disarray
Friday, June 10, 2022

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Tribal leaders and their advocates are raising fresh concerns about the National Congress of American Indians ahead of the organization’s first in-person meeting in more than two years.

NCAI kicks off its mid-year meeting in Alaska on Monday. On the eve of the event, Dante Desiderio has been suspended as chief executive officer, according to an Indian law and policy expert with close ties to the largest inter-tribal advocacy organization in the U.S.

“I heard they are messed up,” one tribal leader relayed to Indianz.Com, although a more explicit word was used to describe the situation at NCAI.

An email sent to NCAI’s communications team on Friday afternoon was not immediately answered. The message inquired about Desiderio’s status within the organization, which he joined as its highest-ranking executive barely a year ago.

But an email account that tribal leaders and advocates have used to communicate with Desiderio mysteriously went awry on Friday. NCAI’s server returned an error stating that the CEO’s inbox “is unable to receive mail” and may have been “disabled.”

“I’m not surprised,” another Indian law and policy expert told Indianz.Com of the developments.

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According to numerous tribal advocates, dissatisfaction with Desiderio has been building over the last few months. Tribal leaders have been upset by his failure to engage directly with Indian Country, even as the COVID-19 pandemic has limited in-person interactions.

“He never went out to any of the regions,” according to a third Indian County expert, one who previously worked with NCAI and Desiderio.

“That was one of his charges — for him to get out of D.C. and visit the regions,” this person said. NCAI is headquartered at the Embassy of Tribal Nations in Washington.

Another complaint centers on Desiderio’s leadership team at the Embassy. He has surrounded himself largely with hires from his work at NAFOA, where he served as executive director for 10 years.

Desiderio brought over two non-Natives from NAFOA, whose focus is on building tribal economies, to serve in key roles at NCAI. According to the organization’s staff page, Max Muller serves as general counsel while Pamela Fagan works as director of operations.

According to the person who recently worked with NCAI, Desiderio had portrayed Muller’s work as the organization’s highest-raking legal official as being of a temporary nature. Tribal leaders want a Native person to serve as general counsel but they aren’t sensing any progress toward that goal.

“How many amazing Native attorneys do we have in Indian Country and we can’t get one to work at NCAI?” the advocate wondered.

Throughout NCAI’s 78-year history, only one Native person has served as general counsel. But Desiderio ousted Derrick Beetso, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, from the role, barely a month after he arrived at the Embassy as CEO.

Desiderio also has been unable to stem a seemingly high turnover rate among employees, an issue raised during NCAI’s high-profile leadership crisis not too long ago. Since his arrival as CEO, the organization has lost about 19 staffers, according to a person close to the situation, including four within the past month or so.

A comparison of NCAI’s staff page over the past year indeed shows at least 15 changes in staff makeup since Desiderio’s hiring.

Desiderio, who previously worked at NCAI, is the second person to hold the title of “Chief Executive Officer” at the the organization. Previously, the highest-ranking staffer was known as the “Executive Director.”

The new title was adopted following the departure of Jacqueline “Jackie” Pata as executive director. Pata, a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes who was previously known as Jackie Johnson, held the role for nearly 18 years, a record for just about every other Indian organization.

Pata had been suspended on the eve of NCAI’s annual meeting in October 2018 amid questions about her handling of a sexual harassment scandal involving the organization’s former general counsel, who was non-Native. Her departure was later announced during NCAI’s winter session in Washington, D.C., in February 2019.

Kevin Allis, a citizen of the Forest County Potawatomi Community, was hired as the first chief executive officer in June 2019. At the time, his selection was hailed as a “new chapter” for an organization that has defended tribal sovereignty and tribal interests since 1944.

Barely 18 months later, Allis announced his exit during NCAI’s annual meeting in November 2020, which took place virtually due to COVID-19.

NCAI hasn’t held an in-person gathering since its winter session in D.C. in February 2020. Desiderio addressed the event in his leadership capacity at NAFOA.

The fast-approaching 2022 Mid Year Conference & Marketplace marks a return to the pre-pandemic era. The event runs June 12-16 at the Dena’ina Civic & Convention Center in Alaska’s largest city.

“For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the conference will be held in-person in Anchorage, Alaska, under the theme of ‘Thinking Beyond Self-Determination,'” the event page reads.

The week begins on Sunday with a meeting of the NCAI Executive Committee, which consists of tribal leadership from every region of Indian Country. At least one tribal leader will use the session to reiterate concerns about Desiderio, and of the organization’s mission, according to an advocate who has been made aware of plans.