President Jefferson Keel of the National Congress of American Indians addresses the organization's 75th annual convention in Denver, Colorado, in October 2018. Seated is Virginia Davis, who was named to an interim leadership team at NCAI following the suspension of its long-serving executive director Jackie pata. Photo: NCAI

National Congress of American Indians loses more women staffers

By Acee Agoyo

The executive director of the National Congress of American Indians remains on leave as the organization continues to lose staffers.

Two more women left the inter-tribal advocacy organization in the last couple of weeks. Both worked in communications, leaving NCAI short-handed during a critical period of change in the nation's capital.

But as Democrats prepare to take over the U.S. House of Representatives and Republican tighten their grip on the U.S. Senate, NCAI does not see itself in a position of weakness. Although only one full-time employee -- a recent arrival -- is presently assigned to communications, the department that handles press and public relations continues to be overseen by a longtime employee.

“NCAI supports the career choices of all of our dedicated professionals, and we wish our staff who have chosen to pursue other opportunities all the best," the organization said in a statement to Indianz.Com.

"To meet our communications needs, NCAI generally relies on a combination of permanent staff, temporary contractors, and consultants," the statement continued. "We will be hiring for our communications department, and in the meantime NCAI’s existing communications team is filling in as needed."

The changes come as Jackie Pata, NCAI's long-serving executive director, enters another month away from the action in Washington, D.C. She was suspended in mid-October, on the eve of a key milestone -- the organization's 75th anniversary convention in Denver, Colorado.

NCAI's executive committee, which consists of tribal leaders from every region of Indian Country, voted in unanimous fashion to remove Pata from her post amid complaints about her management style, concerns about employee dissatisfaction and scrutiny of her handling of a #MeToo scandal that resulted in the ouster of the organization's highest-ranking and longest-serving attorney.

Indianz.Com was the first to report on the reassignment of that attorney, John Dossett, and as well as the first to report on his subsequent departure. Following the publication of additional stories, NCAI President Jefferson Keel eventually confirmed that Dossett had been the subject of "two specific allegations" of sexual harassment

Against that backdrop, tribal leaders were looking to take strong action to address the controversy. According to sources close to the leadership, all of NCAI's area vice presidents voted in favor of Pata's suspension.

But the officers who serve on NCAI's executive board -- the president, vice president, secretary and treasurer -- were on the fence. Only one of them voted to suspend Pata, according to the sources, while another voted against it. Two other officers sat out of the vote, which took place on the Saturday prior to the annual convention.

The move to suspend Pata otherwise came from tribes themselves, Keel confirmed during his opening address at NCAI's convention. He said an "ad hoc committee" of leaders, which came together after Indianz.Com's first report back in August, was unanimous in its recommendation to place the executive director on leave.

Keel also said NCAI adopted some -- but not all -- of the suggestions made by tribal leaders who have been critical of Pata's management. The ad hoc committee is reviewing how allegations of staff misconduct have been handled in the past, according to the president. As part of that work, the committee has spoken to dozens of employees, former employees and others connected to NCAI.

"NCAI doesn't condone harassment of any kind in the workplace, nor have we, nor will we, tolerate it anymore," Keel said in Denver on October 22. “We will take action when it occurs in the future just like we did in the situation at hand."

National Congress of American Indians on YouTube: President Jefferson Keel: Together As One

Despite Pata's suspension, she remained on the ground all week, sitting in the section reserved for NCAI delegates from Alaska -- her home state. She maintained a visible presence at a number of sessions, including at a meeting of the Violence Against Women Act task force, just a couple of days after she had shared her own intensely personal story about being a survivor of abuse at a different tribal event.

Pata even fell back into a familiar role as NCAI was preparing for its 75th anniversary photo on the third day of the convention. As staffers scrambled to set up the main conference room for the key event, Indianz.Com witnessed her ordering lower-level staffers around as volunteers were called in to help prepare for the eventual snapshot.

Following the conclusion of the conference, Pata has spent much of her time in Alaska, diving back into local affairs and her work with the Central Council of the Tlingit-Haida Indian Tribes. She serves as a vice president for the tribe, whose headquarters are in Juneau.

Juneau also serves as headquarters for Sealaska, one of the largest Alaska Native corporations. Pata has a seat on the firm's board of directors [Note: Correction made December 12, 2018] and is up for re-election next year. She first joined the board in 1999, before she was hired by NCAI in 2001.

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Jacqueline Pata of National Congress of American Indians addresses the Alaska Federation of Natives

While in Juneau, Pata has been exploring other employment opportunities as well. According to local sources, she applied for the top position at Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority, where she previously worked as executive director.

The authority, which operates separately from the tribal government, lost its president and CEO, Keith Gregory, in April. He lasted less than a year on the job after facing questions about his management at a public housing agency in Illinois.

As "ex-officio board member" of the authority's board of commissioners, Pata helped play a role in Gregory's hiring and stood to gain from his departure earlier this year. She was tentatively offered the president/CEO post, according to local sources. But the job remains open amid her suspension at NCAI.

The Tlingit-Haida government referred questions about the housing authority to an official there, who did not respond to a request for comment because she was out of the office until last Tuesday. A second official who also was deemed a point of contact did not respond either.

NCAI's internal problems first came to light in early August. Nicole Hallingstad left her position as director of operations at the organization and urged tribal leaders to take a closer look at employee turmoil.

"Like so many other employees, I have chosen to leave a dysfunctional workplace created by an executive director with very poor human resource management skills," Hallingstad, who like Pata is a citizen of the Tlingit-Haida Tribes, wrote in a letter to NCAI's executive committee on August 31. Hallingstad recently won election to Sealaska's board of directors.

An examination of NCAI’s annual reports shows that women are the ones who are most affected by the turmoil. Between 2017 and 2018, for example, 58 percent of the employees who left the organization were women.

Since January alone, NCAI has lost other women, like Hallingstad, who were serving in high-ranking positions. The director of communications was among them -- the job is now being advertised as vacant.

"The NCAI Communications Director is a key member of the NCAI External Affairs team and is the go-to communications professional for the organization, NCAI membership, the media, and general public," the job notice reads. According to NCAI, the position will remain open "until filled."

Prior to being suspended, Pata managed to fill NCAI's deputy director post, which had been vacant for most of the year. Ahniwake Rose, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, confirmed to Indianz.Com prior to the convention that she accepted the job. She is not listed on NCAI's staff page at this time however.

After Pata was suspended, three staffers were put in charge. The leadership team consists of Virginia Davis, a senior policy advisor at the organization, Derrick Beetso, the recently-named general counsel, and Yvette Roubideaux, a former federal government official who heads up NCAI’s Policy Research Center.

At least two members of the group have connections to the #MeToo controversy. Davis, who has mostly been a part-time staffer, had initially been tasked — by Pata — earlier this year with investigating the allegations against John Dossett, according to multiple former employees.

Only after facing pushback within the organization did Pata bring in an outside attorney whose work focuses on sexual harassment within the workplace to review complaints against Dossett. Following the review, his title was changed to senior counsel at NCAI.

Beetso was then unceremoniously named NCAI’s general counsel in late July. His promotion marked the first time a tribal citizen has held the job — Dossett is non-Indian and had served in the post since 1995 — yet there still has been no public announcement or explanation of the development.

Correction: Jackie Pata is a former vice chair of the Sealaska board of directors. She continues to serve on the board but was replaced as vice chair in August 2016.

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
National Congress of American Indians opens annual convention amid controversy (October 23, 2018)
National Congress of American Indians suspends highest-ranking staffer (October 22, 2018)
National Congress of American Indians defends handling of #MeToo scandal (October 11, 2018)
Former employees take aim at National Congress of American Indians in #MeToo scandal (October 9, 2018)
Tribes demand accountability from National Congress of American Indians (October 5, 2018)
National Congress of American Indians ousts senior attorney after #MeToo outcry (October 3, 2018)
Harold Frazier: Where are the Indians in the National Congress of American Indians? (September 28, 2018)
National Congress of American Indians under #MeToo fire (September 25, 2018)
Prominent Indian Country attorney reassigned after #MeToo allegations (August 31, 2018)
Trending in News
More Headlines