Indianz.Com > News > National Congress of American Indians returns to tradition with announcement of new executive
Larry Wright Jr.
Larry Wright Jr. served as chairman of the Ponca Tribe for more than a decade. He is seen here speaking at the grand opening of the tribe’s new clinic in Lincoln, Nebraska, on October 30, 2021. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
National Congress of American Indians returns to tradition with announcement of new executive
Tuesday, September 13, 2022

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The largest inter-tribal advocacy organization in the United States is forging ahead with a new executive as tribes continue to confront challenges to their sovereignty.

Larry Wright Jr., a former chairman of the Ponca Tribe, is now serving as the Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians. His position was announced by the organization on Monday.

“NCAI is excited to welcome and congratulate Larry Wright, Jr. in his new role within the organization,” President Fawn Sharp said in a news release. “He is a familiar face to many after having served as Chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska for more than a decade and serving as a board member of several tribal organizations across the country—including NCAI.”

“His experience advocating on behalf of tribal nations coupled with his unique understanding of the critical role NCAI plays to protect and advance tribal sovereignty make him the ideal candidate to lead this organization forward,” said Sharp, who also serves as vice president of the Quinault Nation.

Wright has already been working at NCAI as its Director of Leadership Engagement. In that role, he has been working with the organization’s member tribes to address issues facing them on the national, state and local levels.

According to the news release, Wright is now responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of the organization, whose headquarters in Washington, D.C., is known as the Embassy of Tribal Nations. He will report directly to the NCAI Executive Committee, which consists of tribal leaders from every region of the U.S.

“Larry’s appointment is an example of the NCAI Executive Committee’s thoughtful commitment to building a strong organization from within, and we are confident that NCAI will benefit from Larry’s demonstrated history of leadership and ability to address the needs of tribal nations,” said Sharp. “We look forward to working together to build a stronger, more responsive organization that will continue to fiercely defend tribal sovereignty just as we have since our inception in 1944.”

Similar management duties were previously handled by the Chief Executive Officer of NCAI. But with the announcement of Wright’s role, NCAI is returning to the use of “Executive Director” following the exit of the organization’s prior CEO. The “Executive Director” title had been used for almost the entirety of NCAI’s 70-plus year history.

On August 12, NCAI announced that it had “parted ways” with Dante Desiderio, who was on the job as CEO for barely a year. He had been placed on administrative leave without pay two months prior — on the eve of the organization’s first in-person conference of the COVID-19 era — for undisclosed reasons.

A lawsuit filed by Desiderio himself discloses the dispute that led to his separation from NCAI. According to his complaint, he was suspended over a sexual harassment investigation involving the organization’s non-Indian former attorney.

“This retaliatory action has resulted in public humiliation, damage to plaintiff’s reputation, embarrassment, mental distress, loss of life’s pleasures, and has damaged him in his trade and profession, which will result in loss of future earnings, and earning capacity,” Desiderio states in his complaint, which was filed Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

According to the court docket, NCAI was formally served with the complaint at the Embassy of Tribal Nations on the afternoon of August 12. Later in the day is when the organization released the statement about Desiderio no longer being an employee.

“NCAI strongly denies Mr. Desiderio’s characterization of the investigation initiated by NCAI’s Executive Committee, and intends to defend vigorously against his lawsuit,” a spokesperson for the organization told Indianz.Com in response to the litigation.

NCAI has since sought to remove the case to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, which is part of the federal judicial system. A notice filed on September 2, right before the Labor Day holiday weekend, cites Desiderio’s claim for $5 million, along with his residence in Virginia, as reasons for transferring the suit.

A federal judge is not convinced by the attempt and has given NCAI until September 20 to “show cause” why the case shouldn’t be sent back to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

Separate from the pending federal court development, the judge in the Superior Court in D.C. has scheduled an “initial scheduling conference” at 9:30am Eastern on September 23.

Amid the litigation, NCAI notes that tribes themselves are facing considerable threats to their sovereign rights. President Fawn Sharp has described the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Castro-Huerta v. Oklahoma as one of the most shocking in recent history.

“The Supreme Court’s decision is nothing less than a direct attack on the sovereignty of all tribal nations,” Sharp said during a July 7 roundtable that NCAI co-hosted with the Native American Rights Fund, the non-profit legal firm.

By a vote of 5 to 4, the justices in Castro-Huerta held that state governments can prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Indian victims in Indian Country. The ruling comes even though tribes — particularly those in Oklahoma, where the case emerged — did not consent to an imposition on their sovereignty.

Additionally, NCAI is closely watching another Supreme Court case known as Haaland v. Brackeen. At stake is whether tribes can exercise sovereignty over their most precious resource — their children — through the Indian Child Welfare Act.

“This case has huge implications for Native children and their families, and also has the potential to impact the future of Tribal nations,” the Protect ICWA Campaign, a coalition that includes NCAI and other Indian organizations, said in an August 23 statement. “If the protections of ICWA are dismantled, opponents could set legal precedent that has serious consequences for other issues like tribal economic development and land rights.

“A threat to ICWA is a threat to tribal sovereignty,” the organizations stated.

From the Archive: Sovereignty Run 2002
Sovereignty Run 2002
Fawn Sharp, left, and Tom Daschle, then serving as U.S. Senate Majority Leader, are seen at the conclusion of the Sovereignty Run at the U.S Supreme Court on October 7, 2002. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Sovereignty Run 2002
Kelsey Begaye, then serving as president of the Navajo Nation, speaks at the podium following the conclusion of the Sovereignty Run at the U.S Supreme Court on October 7, 2002. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Sovereignty Run 2002
Tex Hall, then serving as president of the National Congress of American Indians, speaks at the conclusion of the Sovereignty Run at the U.S Supreme Court on October 7, 2002. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Sovereignty Run 2002
Participants gather for the conclusion of the Sovereignty Run in Washington, D.C., on October 7, 2002. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in Brackeen on November 9 — not long after NCAI concludes its 79th annual convention. The event, which takes place October 30 through November 4 in Sacramento, California, will include a special focus on the threats facing tribes and their sovereignty.

To help raise awareness of the dangers to tribal rights, NCAI President Fawn Sharp is announcing the 20th Anniversary Sovereignty Run, A press conference is taking place at the Embassy on Tribal Nations on Tuesday afternoon.

According to a person with direct knowledge of the planning, the Sovereignty Run is due to kick off in Oklahoma in early October. Participants from tribal communities will cross several states as they make their way to California for the start of the NCAI convention.

The Sovereignty Run is especially notable, as Sharp planned the very first one back in 2002, when she was working as an attorney for her tribe. The calling card for the 2,800-mile journey from Washington state to Washington, D.C., was coined by the future NCAI president and Natalie Charley, the co-organizer of the historic event.

“Every mile counts,” Sharp told Indianz.Com 20 years ago.

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