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Dante Desiderio
Chief Executive Officer Dante Desiderio appears before a roundtable of the House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth in Washington, D.C., on April 7, 2022. Photo: FairGrowthCmte
National Congress of American Indians confirms ‘absence’ of highest staffer
Monday, June 13, 2022

The National Congress of American Indians confirmed the “absence” of its highest-ranking executive as tribal leaders meet for the organization’s first in-person meeting in more than two years.

According a statement issued late in the evening on Saturday, Dante Desiderio was placed on an “administrative leave of absence” from his role as Chief Executive Officer of the largest inter-tribal advocacy organization in the United States. The decision was “effective yesterday,” which was the same day Indianz.Com reported on his sidelining ahead of NCAI’s mid-year meeting in Alaska.

“While we acknowledge the timing of this leave is inopportune given that the NCAI Mid-Year Convention commences on Sunday, June 12, the Executive Committee, the governing body of NCAI, agrees that placing the CEO on a temporary administrative leave is necessary and proper to fulfill their fiduciary governance duties and to abide by NCAI’s policies and procedures,” President Fawn Sharp said in the statement.

Sharp, however, would not explain the nature of Desiderio’s absence. He joined NCAI as its highest-ranking executive only about a year ago, raising fresh questions about the organization’s stability and standing.

“Thank you in advance for understanding that we are not in a position to share more information regarding Desiderio’s leave and for respecting his privacy,” said Sharp, who also serves as vice president of the Quinault Nation.

But a tribal leader who has repeatedly campaigned for president of NCAI, including two runs against Sharp, said the organization has lost its way. In an opinion published on Indianz.Com on Saturday, Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, called for a stronger defense of sovereignty and self-determination amid threats from outside entities, like the federal government and corporate interests.

“NCAI has suffered drift,” said Frazier, who landed in Alaska on Saturday to take part in the Mid-Year Conference and Marketplace, which is taking place all week at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage.

“Programs are titled ‘Beyond Sovereignty,'” noted Frazier, who serves as NCAI’s Vice President for the Great Plains Region and as President of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association. The meeting in Alaska is being held under the theme “Thinking Beyond Self-Determination.”

“Our Native Nations are not beyond sovereignty,” Frazier asserted.

In the story published on Friday, Indianz.Com reported on growing dissatisfaction with Desiderio, who previously served 10 years as executive director of NAFOA, another Indian Country advocacy organization. One complaint centers on the lack of Native people in prominent positions at NCAI, including general counsel and director of operations.

Desiderio filled both positions with colleagues from his tenure at NAFOA, whose focus is on building tribal economies. According to NCAI’s staff page, Max Muller serves as general counsel, the highest-ranking legal official at the organization, while Pamela Fagan works as director of operations. Both are non-Natives.

Another complaint revolves around Desiderio’s supposed failure to follow directives from the organization’s executive committee, which consists of tribal leaders from every part of Indian Country. One person close to the organization said he had promised to visit those regions, even as the COVID-19 pandemic has limited in-person interactions.

And while Desiderio has brought in associates from NAFOA, he 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 to a version from a year ago shows at least 15 changes in staff makeup since Desiderio’s hiring.

Amid the concerns, NCAI’s statement on Saturday characterized the CEO’s sidelining as “appropriate” — even if the reasons behind it remain largely unknown. One tribal leader who serves on the executive committee told Indianz.Com on Sunday morning that little information has been presented to the governing board so far.

“Desiderio has not separated from the organization and his leave is appropriate under the organization’s policies governing the current situation,” NCAI said in the statement, which referred inquires to an outside public affairs firm, rather than the organization’s communications team.

But with Desiderio out of the picture for an unknown amount of time, NCAI’s “important day-to-day work” is being handled by a team of employees, according to the statement. The team consists of Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe who runs the organization’s Policy Research Center; Larry Wright, Jr., a citizen and former chairman of the Ponca Tribe who is in charge of engagement with Indian nations; and Warren Hope, the director of finance at the Embassy of Tribal Nations in Washington, D.C.

“NCAI is confident that the leadership stepping in will ensure that the Mid-Year Convention is a success and that operational tasks are carried out with integrity,” the statement read.

National Congress of American Indians
A post on social media highlights an “Elected Leader Reception” at the National Congress of American Indians 2022 Mid-Year Conference and Marketplace in Anchorage, Alaska, on June 12, 2022. Photo: NCAI on social media
National Congress of American Indians
Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community opens the “Elected Leader Reception” at the National Congress of American Indians 2022 Mid-Year Conference and Marketplace in Anchorage, Alaska, on June 12, 2022. Photo: NCAI on social media

National Congress of American Indians
National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp addresses “Elected Leader Reception” at the organization’s 2022 Mid-Year Conference and Marketplace in Anchorage, Alaska, on June 12, 2022. Photo: NCAI on social media
National Congress of American Indians
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) addresses the “Elected Leader Reception” at the National Congress of American Indians 2022 Mid-Year Conference and Marketplace in Anchorage, Alaska, on June 12, 2022. Photo: NCAI on social media

NCAI began its work in Alaska on Sunday with a meeting of the executive board. A reception for tribal leaders and Alaska Native corporation executives took place later in the evening.

According to posts on NCAI’s social media accounts, the reception was hosted by the Gila River Indian Community, whose leader, Governor Stephen Roe Lewis, opened the event. The tribe, based in Arizona, was the site of a “strategic retreat” for the organization back in March, after which the “Thinking Beyond Self-Determination” theme of the mid-year convention was announced.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the vice chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, also spoke at the reception, according to the social media posts.

NCAI’s meeting resumes on Monday with a series of task force meetings focused on specific topics, including protecting women and children from violence, addressing climate change and advancing the Native vote. A series of listening sessions are being hosted by federal agencies and tribal organizations, on issues ranging from the Indian Child Welfare Act to changes in regulations affecting the Indian gaming industry.

The first general assembly opens on Tuesday morning. Tribal leaders are due to hear from their colleagues and receive updates from the Department of the Interior from Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, as well as from the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

The draft agenda for Tuesday also included an “NCAI CEO Introduction” that was to feature Desiderio. The meeting in Alaska would have been his first in-person appearance before the organization, which was founded in 1944 to address threats to tribal sovereignty and self-determination.

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

The change was adopted following the departure of Jacqueline “Jackie” Pata as executive director. Pata, a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes also 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.

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