National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel testifies at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., on May 8, 2019. Photo: SCIA

Jefferson Keel enters new phase of service in Indian Country after battle with cancer

Jefferson Keel is stepping down from his position as Lieutenant Governor of the Chickasaw Nation after 20 years of service to his tribe.

Keel announced his decision in open letter in the May issue of The Chickasaw Times, the tribe's official newspaper. He will be leaving on September 30, he said.

"The time has come for me to step down, and for Carol and I to begin a new chapter in our lives," Keel said in reference to his wife, Carol.

Keel said his decision was linked to his diagnosis of cancer in April 2017. He contemplated stepping down at that time but opted to wait while he underwent treatment.

"I completed my treatments, and by the Grace of God there is no sign of cancer. The Lord healed me and I know that He has a plan for me," Keel said.

As for his future plan, Keel won't be going far from his people. He said Governor Bill Anoatubby has asked him to serve the tribe in another capacity, though the details are still being worked out.

Retaining a position within the tribe would allow Keel to serve as president of the National Congress of American Indians should he choose to seek another term in office. The organization, the largest Indian organization of its kind in the U.S., is holding elections for its leadership board during its annual convention later this year in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Keel, a veteran of the Vietnam War, has not publicly said whether he will run again. He previously served two terms as president and defeated two other candidates for the job during NCAI's annual convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 2017.

One of those prior candidates -- Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe -- is already campaigning. He said he was asked to run by the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association (GPTCA), which represents 16 tribal nations in Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

"I am honored to have have been asked to do so and even more honored to have the support of the Great Plains tribes! I am coming!" Frazier said in a May 2 post on social media.

Frazier, who previously served as an area vice president for NCAI, has been among the biggest critics of the organization's direction. He has questioned whether its leaders are doing enough to address the challenges that have arisen during the Trump administration, where long-standing Indian law and policy precedents are being undermined at the federal level.

"In many meetings with the government, they try to divide us," Frazier told leaders of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) during their recent meeting in the nation's capital.

"They give us crumbs and try to get us to fight over them, but we have a choice to look beyond that and fight to stay united as one nation, the Native American nation," Frazier said to USET, which represents 27 tribal nations and has developed an alliance with the GPTCA.

Another Great Plains leader also has questioned NCAI's ability to serve as an effective advocate in the Trump era. President Julian Bear Runner of the Oglala Sioux Tribe walked out of a listening session earlier this year in protest of the organization's dealings with the White House.

“I had a lot of hope, and I had a lot of faith in coming to NCAI as an entity to help to take on our challenges in the face of the United States government,” Bear Runner told Indianz.Com after the messy meeting in Washington, D.C., in February. “I have less there, with my faith and my belief in NCAI thrown at me.”

Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, center left, talks with fellow leaders at a meeting of the United South and Eastern Tribes in Arlington, Virginia, on March 4, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Keel ended up apologizing to Bear Runner for making comments that many in the session -- which took place at a hotel near the White House but was closed to the media and the general public -- saw as offensive. He also promised to visit the Great Plains in order to "meet with tribal leaders to discuss their concerns and how we can work together to address the grave challenges Indian Country is facing."

The dust up overshadowed Keel's well-received State of Indian Nations, which he delivered at the beginning of NCAI's winter session in D.C. He offered a strong rebuke of the Trump administration's debacles and the meeting that week concluded with some key policy concessions from the leader of the Department of the Interior, the federal agency with the most responsibilities in Indian Country.

But as the session was ending, NCAI was dealing with another issue that has undermined confidence in the organization's direction. Tribal leaders who serve on the executive committee, consisting of the four named officers plus representatives from every region of Indian Country, authorized Keel to ask for the resignation of Jackie Pata, NCAI's long-serving executive director, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Pata, who is a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes, had been suspended on the eve of NCAI's milestone 75th annual convention in order for tribal leaders to investigate her handling of a #MeToo scandal and other long-standing concerns about her management style. According to Keel, a review of the organization's workplace found it to be a "safe place" for women.

The determination -- the complete details of which have not been provided to NCAI's membership at large -- essentially cleared Pata of any wrongdoing, a contingency that was attached to her potential employment as the president and chief executive officer of the Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority in Alaska, Indianz.Com previously reported.

Days after the conclusion of the winter session, Pata agreed to resign, though Keel was authorized to fire her if she refused to go on her own, people familiar with the discussions said.

But less than two months later, Pata announced to her people that she landed the coveted job in charge of a housing authority that receives millions of dollars in federal funds and oversees assets worth tens of millions of dollars -- a much bigger portfolio than NCAI's.

“I’ve been away from home for 20 years," Pata said during Tlingit-Haida's 48th annual assembly in Juneau as the event came to a close on April 12.

Pata served as NCAI's executive director for 18 years, longer than anyone else in the organization's history. "I ended up staying because I felt the work that I was doing was of value, and of value to you," she said.

"It is my time," Pata said. "It is my privilege to come home."

"Jackie is a recognized and well-respected leader across Alaska and throughout Indian Country. Her previous experience in housing and passion for service to Southeast communities will be a real asset to the Housing Authority,” the entity's board of commissioners said in a statement, which was issued after Pata made her announcement.

With Pata out the door, NCAI is poised to hire someone to fill a job with a new title, that of "chief executive officer." The application period was initially open from March 8 through April 8, according to the job description, though it was later extended to April 22.

"NCAI is a leader in policy surrounding issues that impact tribal governments and individual Indians," the job description reads. "The organization provides essential information and education on key policy initiatives, enhances coordination and consultation with tribal governments, and leads efforts to unite tribal advocates to promote progressive, proactive Indian policy."

A handful of candidates have since been told they are finalists for the job, people with knowledge of the process told Indianz.Com. Potential hires boast of decades of experience in Indian law and policy, Indian education, tribal economic development, Indian health and other areas of significance, according to people who have been told of some of the candidates' identities.

Interviews are being scheduled in D.C. for the finalists, with at least one candidate expected to be interviewed at the Embassy of Tribal Nations about a month from now. That would bring the possible hiring of a CEO close to NCAI's mid-year session in Sparks, Nevada, in late June.

Ahniwake Rose, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, has told a number of colleagues that she is interested in the job. She previously told Indianz.Com that she was hired by NCAI as its deputy director shortly before Pata's suspension was announced last October, though she did not officially begin working until December.

Rose, who also has heritage from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, came to NCAI from the National Indian Education Association, where she served as executive director since 2012. She previously worked as the policy director at NCAI.

Yvette Roubideaux, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe who served as director of the Indian Health Service during the Obama administration, has told colleagues that she wants the CEO job as well. She currently heads up NCAI's Policy Research Center and served on a leadership team that ran the organization during Pata's suspension.

Behind the scenes, Rose has positioned herself as the top contender to become NCAI's first chief executive officer. She has informed others that Roubideaux is not being considered seriously for the job, a person who has been in contact with Rose told Indianz.Com.

One advocate from the Great Plains separately confirmed to Indianz.Com that Roubideaux's tenure at the IHS is viewed as a liability by tribes in her home region, whose hospitals and clinics are rated the worst in the entire system. Management issues, questionable employees and long-standing problems have gone unaddressed for nearly a decade despite a 2010 report issued by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that outlined the failures in an area that includes Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

The intense attention being paid to the case of Stanley Patrick Weber, a former IHS pediatrician who has been convicted of abusing young patients in Montana and awaits trial on similar charges in South Dakota, has Great Plains tribes opposed to Roubideaux taking on a higher-level position at NCAI, according to advocates from the region. Key members of Congress have accused the IHS of allowing Weber, who is appealing his conviction, to remain employed despite questions about his behaviors that were voiced by fellow employees and patients in the affected tribal communities.

Others view Rose's ascension worrisome as well. She left NIEA after its leaders announced a move of its headquarters from D.C. to Minnesota. NIEA has long rented offices on the grounds of NCAI's Embassy, where Rose had close contact with Pata prior to being hired as NCAI's deputy director.

Following Rose's departure from NIEA, she continued to express great interest in that organization's future, according to some of her professional colleagues. She strongly urged one of them to apply for the NIEA's vacant executive director job and told this person to convince the educators who serve on the board of directors to change their minds about the relocation.

National Congress of American Indians Jefferson Keel appears on stage with fellow tribal leaders after delivering the 17th annual State of Indian Nations at the Newseum in Washington, D.C, on February 11, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Internally, though, Rose's hiring at NCAI is being portrayed as a means of improving the workforce environment, one that had been questioned during Pata's reign.

"NCAI hired a new Deputy Director, Ahniwake Rose, who started in December," President Jefferson Keel wrote in a letter to members in March. "Her primary responsibilities are to provide operational and administrative leadership across NCAI, including overseeing NCAI’s human resources functions."

The March 8 letter represented Keel's promise to be transparent about NCAI's actions in the wake of the #MeToo scandal. But after Indianz.Com learned of its existence and its contents, the organization did not respond to a request to release the document.

At the time, Indianz.Com contacted several dues-paying NCAI members -- tribal governments and individuals alike -- and asked whether they received the letter. All said they had not even though it had been addressed to "NCAI Tribal Members."

Indian Country Today, which is owned by NCAI but operates independently, subsequently reported on the contents of the letter, though a copy was not posted in a March 12 article.

The letter, though it was signed by President Keel, was distributed to recipients from the email account of Derrick Beetso, a citizen of the Navajo Nation who serves as NCAI's general counsel. Doing so bypassed the usual method in which the organization sends out messages and alerts to its membership.

Indianz.Com on YouTube: 'Transparency' and National Congress of American Indians

Beetso assumed NCAI's top legal position after fomer general counsel John Dossett was assigned to another job following an investigation that took place earlier in 2018. NCAI never publicly announced Beetso's promotion despite him being the first tribal citizen

Only after Indianz.Com published a series of reports on the turmoil did Keel confirm that Dossett, who is non-Indian, was the subject of two specific allegations" of sexual harassment by fellow employees. One person who quit the organization in protest of her treatment later told Indianz.Com that the investigation, which was conducted by an outside attorney, confirmed her account.

Dossett had served as general counsel for 23 years before he was ousted by the organization weeks before NCAI's 75th convention. On the same day he was removed, he sent a lengthy statement from his NCAI email account to prominent Native women, tribal leaders and key members of Congress and their staff, claiming that he was the victim -- a "fall guy" -- of some sort of feud between Jackie Pata and another female NCAI employee, an Alaska Native woman who blew the whistle on the turmoil within the organization.

NCAI has seen notable staff turnover in recent years, with a significant number of female employees choosing to explore other opportunities. Between 2017 and 2018, for example, 58 percent of the employees who left were women, according to a review of the organization's annual reports.

Just last month, another Native woman, one with strong experience in policy and budget, and who had been at NCAI for almost 16 years, left to work for a key member of Congress.

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