'You are a pretty young Native woman, beware'
Women come forward at National Congress of American Indians
An Investigation by Kevin Abourezk and Acee Agoyo
The highest-ranking attorney at the National Congress of American Indians
has been reassigned in the wake of sexual harassment allegations, an investigation by Indianz.Com has found.
John Dossett has been employed by the nation’s oldest and largest inter-tribal organization since 1995
. And up until last month, he was serving as general counsel, NCAI’s senior-most legal position and one with widespread influence in Indian Country, from policy matters in the executive branch and legislation on Capitol Hill to high-profile U.S. Supreme Court cases
But as Dossett was working on issues like the Tribal Law and Order Act
and the Violence Against Women Act
, he was being accused of harassing, intimidating and pressuring female employees at NCAI, according to documents obtained by Indianz.Com and interviews with multiple sources. Following an internal review — one that was conducted by a Washington, D.C., attorney who has focused on the #MeToo movement
and its impact in the workplace — his title was changed to “senior counsel,” a different role within the organization, though in the same legal area.
Yet Dossett, a married father of two whose main residence is in the state of Oregon, remains employed at the organization. The failure of NCAI, which positions itself as an advocate for Native women, who are victimized at rates far higher
than any other group, to take stronger action has some tribal advocates fuming.
“Give him the heave-ho,” Suzan Shown Harjo
, a former executive director of NCAI, told Indianz.Com. “Make the place safe for the women.”
Native women and their
supporters rallied at the U.S. Supreme Court on December 7, 2015, as the
justices heard Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw
Indians. As the then-general counsel at the National Congress of American Indians, John Dossett signed onto a pro-tribal brief in the closely-watched case. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Interviews with former employees show that some at NCAI tried to make the place safer for women, especially the young Native women who typically make up the bulk of the organization’s workforce. But repeated attempts to resolve complaints against Dossett went nowhere, documents obtained by Indianz.Com indicate, at least until the internal review this year.
"It's one of the biggest hypocritical things about NCAI,” one former employee said. “NCAI is the national leader on VAWA issues for Indian Country but they are not even taking care of their own."
Dossett’s treatment of women was common knowledge, according to this former employee. She went to work for NCAI in hopes of making a difference in tribal communities but soon found herself questioning whether she would be able to do that with a potential predator on the payroll.
"As a new staff, I was told by a colleague, 'You are a pretty young Native woman, beware of John Dossett. Don't be caught in a room alone with him,’” the former employee said, making her one of three former female employees interviewed by Indianz.Com who said they were told never to be alone with Dossett.
"It's the worst kept secret in D.C.'s Indian circles,” she said.
The terrible secret was apparently exacerbated by NCAI’s documented inability to fully resolve complaints of sexual harassment and other allegations of misconduct. Last August, a high-level employee was ousted after blowing the whistle on the organization’s handling of these kinds of incidents, including some that date back to 2014.
Jackie Pata, a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes, has served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians since 2001. She is the longest serving executive director in the organization's history. Photo: NCAI
Sam Owl, a citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
, was employed as chief financial officer when he went directly to tribal leaders with his concerns last summer. He warned them about long-standing harassment issues and a “culture that continues to exist at NCAI,” according to a memo obtained by Indianz.Com.
“The risk to the organization grows when each of these incidents go unaddressed,” the June 2017 document states.
But Owl’s effort — which he described as a “last resort” — was not met with immediate improvements for women. Less than two months later, he was forced to leave NCAI and, in a subsequent letter sent by his legal counsel, he said it was because he reported “several allegations of harassment, discrimination and other misconduct” involving not just Dossett but other employees as well.
The September 2017 letter also threatened a potential wrongful termination lawsuit against NCAI and sought severance pay for being dismissed. Owl's legal counsel still has not received a response, nearly a year after it was sent to the organization.
Owl isn’t the only one who has raised alarms either. Just last Friday, Nicole Hallingstad left her position as director of operations, another high-level role at NCAI, warning of an “oppressive culture” that has contributed to widespread staff turnover in recent years.
“Committed staff does not lightly leave an organization they love and a mission they are passionate about fulfilling,” Hallingstad, a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes
, wrote in a letter to tribal leaders who serve
on NCAI’s leadership board. “But when they see colleagues marginalized, disciplined, punished, and even terminated for trying to address issues of poor management – or bad actors not held to account for disrespectful behavior – and the oppressive culture of silence and lack of authentic process means they cannot speak with their voices, then they will speak with their feet.”
The culture indeed has had a significant impact on NCAI’s ability to retain Indian Country’s best and brightest. Since January, 11 employees have left NCAI, Hallingstad wrote in the letter. Overall, she said 33 full-time employees have left in the last three years.
A close examination of NCAI’s annual reports
shows that women are in fact the most affected by the turmoil. Between 2017 and 2018, for example, 58 percent of the employees who left the organization were women.
Women are also the most tormented by questions of accountability, according to interviews. In total, Indianz.Com spoke to seven former employees, and the experience of one was indicative of the struggles facing Native women who felt compelled to walk away from NCAI despite being committed to the organization’s mission of protecting tribal rights and improving the lives of tribal citizens.
“The hardest part about leaving NCAI is that you didn’t want to leave anyone there because you wanted to protect them from it,” said the former employee. “You wanted to take them with you. You didn’t want to leave them with that. It was so dysfunctional. It was so repulsive.”
“You didn’t want your friends, you didn’t want your family, your sisters to still be there,” she said, fighting back tears. “You wanted them out. So it was so hard to take a job somewhere else because you just wanted them out with you. You wanted them to leave.”
Jackie Pata, who has served as NCAI’s executive director longer than anyone else in the organization’s history, declined to comment directly when initially asked about the staff upheaval. She also declined to respond to subsequent questions about the change in Dossett’s role and the internal review which preceded that change.
“NCAI takes very seriously its anti-harassment and anti-retaliation obligations and policies,” Pata, a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes, told Indianz.Com
on Thursday. “It also takes seriously its commitment to its employees to protect their privacy when handling such sensitive matters.”
“As such, NCAI does not comment publicly regarding allegations, investigations or related personnel matters,” said Pata, who has been in NCAI’s top staff position since 2001.
Keel of the National Congress of American Indians. Keel also serves as lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation. Photo: NCAI
Dossett, who is also on the faculty at the Lewis & Clark Law School
in Oregon, did not respond to questions about the change in his role at NCAI. But he denied any wrongdoing with respect to one allegation against him.
"I have consistently denied, and continue to strongly deny, that I engaged in any improper behavior, or that I intended to make her feel uncomfortable," Dossett told Indianz.Com on Friday.
"Out of respect for that individual, I will have no further comment," he added.
But earlier this year, Dossett was more than willing to discuss this particular incident. An email that was provided to the D.C. attorney who conducted the internal review for NCAI contains alarming information about his interactions with a female employee.
In the document, Dossett said he “never harassed” the employee, though he admits he “totally restrained” her by the arm during the incident in question. He also said he “held” the woman’s hand in what he characterized as an attempt to assist her after a long day of work at the “end of a big meeting.”
Even as he offered an apology for his behaviors, he suggested that he had justification to act in that manner. He said he was concerned about the employee’s well-being, saying that she was “really tired” and was affected by “maybe too many beers.”
“I am not one to judge,” he wrote in the email, which he generated in February, shortly after the conclusion of NCAI's winter session in D.C.
, in an apparent attempt to reconcile with the employee who had accused him of misconduct.
Dossett also went to great lengths to portray himself as an advocate for women. He cited his work on the Violence Against Women Act
, whose landmark provisions recognize the authority of tribal governments to punish non-Indian
offenders, and suggested that he is the one who has been damaged by accusations against him.
"I can't tell how you painful it was to be accused of something like this," he stated. He added: "A question about my integrity on a matter such as this pains me in so many different ways."
Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee) is a former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.
Dossett's attempt to explain his actions did not sit well with Suzan Shown Harjo, who ran NCAI during the 1980s
and is a leading figure in Indian Country
on issues affecting Native women
, Native youth
and portrayals of Native peoples
"That's no excuse," said Harjo. "That's no excuse for predatory behavior."
Harjo also said NCAI's handling of misconduct allegations has fostered a climate of shame, silence and intimidation among those who have worked there. She believes a closer examination of the organization's management could reveal problems with the way employees have been treated.
"It's never just one guy -- it's a whole context, a whole setting," Harjo told Indianz.Com. "One guy has enablers, one guy has people who look the other way and one guy depends on a lot of people who aren't going to say anything because they are embarrassed or they are fearful."
"They think they'll be blacklisted," she said of people who are reluctant to speak up because it might impact their careers and reputations in Indian Country. "People have fears about naming and sticking up for themselves and sometimes people are so relieved to be out of a job like that."
"They don't want it to follow them, they don't want to internalize it, they don't want to take it with them," said Harjo, who is Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee.
Nicole Hallingstad, whose resignation as NCAI's director of operations was effective August 24, is also calling for greater scrutiny of the organization. In a statement to Indianz.Com
, she said women who step forward, rather than being believed, are treated with disrespect.
"Events of the past year and rising social movements have shown how women who step forward to alert leadership of issues in the workplace are often portrayed,” Hallingstad said. “They are declared problem employees, and leadership will claim ‘things have been handled.’”
"My employee file will show I have a stellar personnel record that includes a recent pay raise," Hallingstad added. "The usual protective playbook that NCAI follows will not hold up under scrutiny."
NCAI's official response to Hallingstad's resignation indeed followed a familiar pattern. Dossett was the first to strike back, with his response
early Friday afternoon. He questioned her "motives" for coming forward.
"I will not comment on Ms. Hallingstad’s tenure with NCAI, or the views she espouses regarding NCAI management, other than to say that I strongly disagree with her characterization of NCAI leadership and question her motives," he told Indianz.Com.
Only a couple of hours later, a higher-profile figure at the organization weighed in. NCAI President Jefferson Keel, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation
, focused on Hallingstad's decision to come forward as well. He disputed her claims about NCAI's record of handling employee grievances, saying the organization "handled" them.
"The complaints and allegations in Ms. Hallingstad’s letter are no different and were each handled promptly, investigated thoroughly and appropriate actions were taken," Keel told Indianz.Com, referring to the August 13 letter she sent to tribal leaders
. "But these matters are and will remain confidential personnel matters about which NCAI simply will not comment."
He also disputed Hallingstad’s characterizations of employee turnover. According to Keel, who won election as president during the organization's annual convention
last October, "NCAI experienced a range of 17-33% annual staff turnover in the last four years which averages to a 25% annual turnover rate."
"Ms. Hallingstad," Keel said, was "simply wrong."
In addition to her August 13, 2018, letter to tribal leaders
, Nicole Hallingstad has provided a statement about her decision to go public with concerns about the National Congress of American Indians. Here it is in full:
“My internal letters to the executive director and Executive Committee of NCAI stand on their own. They are not a formal complaint, and this is not about a single departing employee. This is not about me, and this is not a singular personnel issue. To paint it as such is to deny the larger systemic problem at NCAI.
Events of the past year and rising social movements have shown how women who step forward to alert leadership of issues in the workplace are often portrayed. They are declared problem employees, and leadership will claim ‘things have been handled’. My employee file will show I have a stellar personnel record that includes a recent pay raise. The usual protective playbook that NCAI follows will not hold up under scrutiny.
I was hired for my governance and operational expertise, to bring efficiency and accountability to NCAI. My role as Director of Operations required assessing the operations as they actually exist, and striving to create improvements. This is where tension occurred, and there was resistance from the top. Part of my duties dealt with human resources, but those responsibilities were stripped away when problems were raised that the NCAI executive director and Administrative Officers did not want to address.
I was simply doing my job in providing information to the entire Executive Committee that appears to have been shielded from them by the Administrative Officers. I stand behind the irrefutable data of employee turnover.”
National Congress of American Indians
Officials at the National Congress of American Indians, the largest inter-tribal advocacy organization in the United States, have provided three statements to Indianz.Com.
Jackie Pata, Executive Director:
“NCAI takes very seriously its anti-harassment and anti-retaliation obligations and policies. It also takes seriously its commitment to its employees to protect their privacy when handling such sensitive matters. As such, NCAI does not comment publicly regarding allegations, investigations or related personnel matters.”
John Dossett, Senior Counsel (Formerly General Counsel):
“I understand that a colleague complained about my behavior at a conference approximately two years ago. I have consistently denied, and continue to strongly deny, that I engaged in any improper behavior, or that I intended to make her feel uncomfortable. Out of respect for that individual, I will have no further comment.
I will not comment on Ms. Hallingstad’s tenure with NCAI, or the views she espouses regarding NCAI management, other than to say that I strongly disagree with her characterization of NCAI leadership and question her motives.”
Jefferson Keel, President:
"I would like to underscore how seriously NCAI takes its obligations to staff. We could not do the important work with which we are entrusted without our incredible team. We are continually learning and improving our internal processes, procedures, and communications with staff. Although staff may not always be aware of the work being done by the Executive Committee, that does not mean the work is not taking place.
NCAI does not comment publicly regarding personnel matters, including into allegations of wrongdoing, though all matters are investigated promptly, thoroughly, and appropriate steps are taken, at which point NCAI considers the matters resolved. The complaints and allegations in Ms. Hallingstad’s letter are no different and were each handled promptly, investigated thoroughly and appropriate actions were taken. But these matters are and will remain confidential personnel matters about which NCAI simply will not comment.
Ms. Hallingstad also made statements regarding NCAI’s staff turnover that are simply wrong and require a response. Ms. Hallingstad stated that NCAI has experienced 80% staff turnover in the past three years, and that 33 full-time regular employees have left NCAI during that time. Instead NCAI experienced a range of 17-33% annual staff turnover in the last four years which averages to a 25% annual turnover rate.
According to the 2016 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey conducted by GuideStar and Nonprofit HR, nonprofits tend to have close to 20% turnover each year."
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