NCAI in Turmoil and TransitionThe National Congress of American Indians is the largest inter-tribal advocacy organization in the United States. Formed in 1944, it is known for protecting the sovereign interests of tribal governments and for advancing a slew of causes, from safeguarding voting rights to addressing violence against Native women. But NCAI's reputation has taken a hit in the last few months after long-standing allegations of staff misconduct finally came to light. The turmoil culminated with the resignation of the organization's longest-serving executive director. Here's a timeline of how we got here.
The First Word
On August 13, 2018, NCAI's director of operations announced her resignation. In a letter sent to every member of NCAI's executive committee, Nicole Hallingstad said an "oppressive culture of silence and lack of authentic process" at the organization contributed to a high rate of turnover among employees.
Though the letter was never intended to become public, it quickly became the subject of widespread discussion across Indian Country and it led NCAI to call a staff meeting in which employees were instructed not to talk to Indianz.Com about the matter.
Despite the official wall of silence, Indianz.Com published the first account of the turmoil at NCAI on August 31, 2018. The report disclosed the existence of a #MeToo investigation into John Dossett, the organization's long-serving general counsel. Following the investigation, which was conducted by an outside attorney, Dossett was reassigned to another legal position -- that of senior counsel -- within NCAI.
Though Dossett declined to comment about the change in his title, he did lash out at Nicole Hallingstad, questioning her "motives" for speaking out. NCAI President Jefferson Keel also declined to address Dossett's status but he too questioned Hallingstad, calling her views about staff turnover "simply wrong."
After providing a statement to Indianz.Com, NCAI President Jefferson Keel addressed the controversy in a letter to member tribes on September 18, 2018. The initial responses failed to answer key questions so tribal leaders began to ask some of their own.
The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians outright quit the organization, with Chairman Matthew Wesaw citing an "obligation" owed to Native women in a September 25, 2018, story published on Indianz.Com. That same day, Keel sent out another letter to members.
Three days later, Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe published a statement on Indianz.Com, calling for NCAI's officers to resign and accusing them of failling to carry out the organization's mission and mandates. "Failure to protect one of us is a failure to protect all of us," he said.
Photo: Indianz.Com (Harold Frazier with microphone)
A Big Hit
NCAI executive director Jackie Pata told Indianz.Com on October 3, 2018, that John Dossset, who had worked at the organization since 1995, was no longer employed there. She declined to provide specifics but Indianz.Com learned that NCAI board members demanded his ouster after learning about misconduct allegations against him.
Dossett did not go quietly. On the same day he was ousted, he used his NCAI email account to send a manifesto of sorts to a long list of tribal leaders, Native women advocates and key members of Congress and their staffs. In it, he brought up Nicole Hallingstad again and said she had an "axe to grind." He also disclosed -- for the first time -- details of the sexual harassment allegations against him, allegations that he said were false.
Pata was eager to distance NCAI from the rogue actor. Dossett was "not authorized" to send that statement and NCAI had no knowledge that he was going to send it, she said.
More Tribal Doubts
Rather than putting the #MeToo controversy to rest, the ouster of John Dossett from NCAI only raised more questions among tribal leaders. With the organization's 75th annual conference around the corner they started demanding more answers and more accountability, with their efforts detailed in a story published on Indianz.Com on October 3, 2018.
The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe submitted a resolution that authorized NCAI executive director Jackie Pata to be suspended pending a "thorough investigation" into allegations of staff misconduct. The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa also submitted a resolution, calling for an "independent" investigation into a wide range of employment and management issues.
With NCAI's 75th annual convention quickly approaching, President Jefferson Keel sent a third letter to members on October 11, 2018. In it, he confirmed that former general counsel John Dossett was the subject of "two specific allegations" of sexual harassment and that NCAI brought in an "external investigator" to look into those claims, as Indianz.Com had already reported.
He also disclosed, for the first time, that an "ad hoc committee" of tribal leaders who serve on NCAI's executive committee was established in order to "review how allegations of misconduct have been addressed previously by the organization." What he did not explain was that the committee came together in response to Nicole Hallingstad's letter. Tribal leaders almost immediately held a conference call to discuss it, Indianz.Com learned, with some expressing shock at the turmoil that had gone unreported to them for so long by senior management at NCAI.
The same week as President Keel's third letter, another former employee came forward. She was dismayed after John Dossett divulged personal information about her to peers and to people in Washington she admired. "To see the words I wrote so publicly displayed is numbing, nauseating," she said in a statement to Indianz.Com, published on October 9, 2018, wondering how he was able to quote verbatim from a complaint she lodged at NCAI. When asked for comment, Pata declined to explain how that might have happened.
Jackie Pata's Moves
With her future at NCAI in doubt, executive director Jackie Pata was on the move only a week before the 75th annual convention. She traveled to her home state of Alaska to take part in a pre-scheduled conference co-hosted by NCAI and the Alaska Federation of Natives. It would turn out to be a fateful affair.
Behind the scenes, NCAI board members were ready to take action. But with Pata far away, Indianz.Com learned that a conference call -- during which a majority of tribal leaders were prepared to take action against her in some fashion before their convention -- was abruptly scuttled that same week.
Despite surviving the close call, the drama appeared to be weighing on Pata. During AFN's annual meeting, which took place in Anchorage, she was seen in the hallways becoming emotional when speaking with well-wishers. And when it came time to share the results of the joint NCAI-AFN event, she chose to reveal that she had been victimized as a child, sexually assaulted as a teenager and "violently abused" by a marital partner.
The remarkable speech was all the more notable because it almost didn't happen. With time running out on the schedule before the lunch hour, the emcee announced that Pata's report was going to be put off for another day.
Pata, however, couldn't wait, knowing that she soon had to leave Alaska in order to get to NCAI's convention in Colorado on time. So with almost no one left in the room -- but with Indianz.Com sitting near the podium -- she delivered what would turn out to be her last remarks as executive director of the organization she joined in 2001.
"If it wasnt for the Alaska Native Resource Center and the AWARE shelter in Juneau, I wouldn't have been the executive director of NCAI," Pata said, with her voice wavering as she named her support system in such a public setting. This was her #MeToo moment.
A Milestone Decision
Two days after the address to the Alaska Federation of Natives, Jackie Pata learned her fate. On the Saturday before NCAI opened a gathering in the same city where tribal leaders met in 1944 to address threats to their sovereignty, the organization announced that Pata was being placed on administrative leave while tribal leaders oversaw an investigation into how past allegations of staff misconduct were handled under her watch.
But like John Dossett before her, Pata did not go away quietly. A day later, was escorted into a Violence Against Women Act meeting by an NCAI official, who introduced her to the group as a "clan mother" of the Tlingit-Haida people. Then she took part in NCAI's convention all week as a delegate, sitting with other representatives from Alaska.
No one openly discussed Pata's presence until a former president of NCAI -- the last woman to hold the office -- praised the suspended executive director and encouraged everyone to do the same. Representatives of this past president's tribe were bothered and were quick to tell Indianz.Com and anyone else who would listen that such views weren't shared by those of its current leadership.
Yet as the historic convention came to close, Pata fell back into a familiar role. Despite being suspended, Indianz.Com witnessed her delivering orders to subordinates as NCAI prepared for its 75th anniversary photo. The organization apparently couldn't move forward without her guiding hand.
A New Era
As the new year dawned, the National Congress of American held its next major meeting, this one in Washington, D.C. But unlike the last one, Jackie Pata was nowhere to be found. She was neither seen nor heard, as Native News Online would later put it. NCAI Vice President Aaron Payment replaced her as emcee of the 17th annual State of Indian Nations, which was delivered by President Jefferson Keel to rave reviews.
Keel then disclosed at NCAI's winter session that the review of the organization's workforce environment was completed. "I can assure you that [NCAI] is indeed a safe place for women to work," he said, declining to explain how that conclusion came about but promising that member tribes would soon learn more.
But as tribal leaders wrapped up the event with a reception at the National Museum of the American Indian, they were taking action behind the scenes. It was time, they decided, for Pata to go. And while she remains on the job while NCAI looks for a replacement, she went gracefully.
“After having time for thought and reflection, I have decided to resign," Pata said after serving 18 years in the job.
With the National Congress of American Indians in a "transition" period, Jackie Pata is staying on board while the organization searchers for a new executive director. Who is going to take the job next?Join the Conversation