John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Tribe, is adding himself to a list of Native Americans who are expressing concern about Keith Harper’s nomination to serve as a United Nations ambassador for human rights—and the tribal leader says he witnessed an incident in which a Native American lawyer alleges that Harper angrily confronted her in 2005 and was verbally abusive.
Majel Russell, a Montana-based Indian affairs lawyer with Elk River Law Office, recently detailed two incidents she says were initiated by Harper, one in 2005 and one in 2010. Berrey is one of three different witnesses who have told Indian Country Today Media Network similar versions of the earlier incident and two witnesses say they saw and heard part of the second encounter, during which Russell claims, “He [Harper] confronted me in a hallway and threatened to tell a tribe that I had not represented them well in a previous trust settlement.”
Berrey, a member of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Executive Committee, says he was forced to separate Harper from Russell during the 2005 incident. “Keith sure postured like he was going to hit her, cussing the whole time,” says Berrey, who saw the confrontation.
“He [Harper] flipped out,” a separate witness to the incident said previously. “He was physically threatening Majel. It was scary. His body language was in her face; he was yelling in her face, calling her a bitch.”
“He was yelling at her and cussing at her—it wasn’t like two people were standing arguing,” another witness said previously. “People thought he was going to hit her. He was very, very angry and got right up in her face.”
Jim Gray, former chief of the Osage Nation who served as the vice-chair and chairman of ITMA from 2004 through 2006, offers an alternative account, saying he was at both meetings where the alleged incidents occurred.
“I’ve never seen Keith lose his cool, ever,” Gray says, adding that he believes that many people who have come out against Harper’s nomination have lingering concerns about the Cobell litigation and settlement, during which Harper was a lawyer representing the Indian plaintiffs in the case. “There are a lot of people who have legitimate differences of opinions on how that case was managed, but what are you going to do? I don’t think it should carry over to hurt Keith’s career,” he says.
Gray says he doesn’t know why multiple independent witnesses have confirmed Russell’s allegations, but he adds that he was not with Russell and Harper all of the time after the two meetings. “I wasn’t outside [the first meeting],” he says. “But I didn’t see anything happen during those meetings.” After Gray wrote a February 27 op-ed for ICTMN supporting Harper’s nomination, he says he received a thank you note from Harper by e-mail. “Our relationship has always been professional—we don’t go out to eat, we don’t exchange Christmas cards,” he says.
Harper has not responded to requests for comment about the encounters, and John Page, a spokesman for the Kilpatrick Stockton law office where Harper is a partner, has said Harper cannot comment on any matters during his nomination process.
In response to Gray’s account, Russell says that the earlier incident occurred outside of the meeting, and that Gray was not present there. “Keith followed me outside of the meeting room, which is where it occurred,” she says. “Jim wasn’t there, so he didn’t see it." Regarding the 2010 incident, she says, “I don’t remember Jim anywhere around.”
Berrey says he has personally experienced behavior from Harper similar to the kind Russell alleges.
“He jumped me one time after a hearing on the Senate side and began cussing at me with words you couldn’t believe could come out of somebody’s mouth,” Berrey says, recalling a hearing in 2002 focused on the then-ongoing Cobell litigation and tribal concerns involving the case.
According to Berrey, Harper tends to use “scorched earth” tactics when arguing a position, noting that Harper included “personal attacks, saying I was a fat liar, making fun of my size” in a 2004 D.C. District Court pleading signed by Harper and other Cobell lawyers, including Dennis Gingold, whom Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has relied on as a character witness for Harper during his nomination process.
Harper’s nomination narrowly passed the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in early February with Boxer’s support, and her staff has circulated talking points indicating that the human rights ambassadorship must be filled quickly due to Palestinian and Israeli issues. His nomination currently awaits a vote by the full Senate.
While several prominent Native lobbyists and tribal leaders, including some current leaders at NCAI, are supporting Harper’s nomination, citing his Cherokee citizenship and his work on the Cobell case, Berrey says the allegations from Russell and lawyer Richard Monette, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin and former chairman of Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians who says Harper shoved him before a Cobell hearing in 2010, should be reasons for serious contemplation.
“Keith has no respect for human rights,” says Berrey, the current co-chair of an indigenous rights committee at NCAI. “He’s over-the-top, aggressive and mean and angry. This is not a person we need representing us at the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples coming up in September.”
There is currently an internal debate going on inside NCAI, according to four of its executive committee members, with some believing the organization should address the allegations and ask the White House to nominate a less controversial Native American to this position.
Jackie Johnson-Pata, executive director of the organization, has stood firmly behind Harper, recently pointing to a list of tribal supporters for him when asked to weigh in on the allegations, as well as to a support letter sent by Jefferson Keel, former president of NCAI, to the Foreign Relations Committee last year. Brian Cladoosby, current president of NCAI, said in a statement issued February 24 that NCAI has supported Harper “because of the importance of indigenous rights at the United Nations and Office of American States forums,” and he noted that several civil rights groups are also supporting Harper.
Melinda Warner, a spokeswoman for NCAI, says Johnson-Pata and Cladoosby have no response to the intimidation allegations made by Russell and Monette. In May 2008 NCAI leaders backed Russell to become Assistant Secretary—Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior after the retirement of Carl Artman from the position. Former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne rejected this support and appointed George Skibine to the position instead. Sources at the time cited Kempthorne’s concern about Russell’s strong “tribalist” viewpoints as a reason he selected Skibine over her, to the chagrin of NCAI leaders at the time.
RELATED: Temporary BIA chief tapped
Clara Pratte, executive director of the Navajo Nation’s D.C. office, says the allegations have resulted in “no change” in her support for his nomination. “Having worked with Mr. Harper on many issues. I have full faith and confidence in his professionalism and ethics,” she says. Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, sent a letter of support for Harper to the Senate before the allegations became public.
Bill John Baker, chairman of the Cherokee Nation, says he continues to support Harper as well. “Cherokee citizen Keith Harper is a legal scholar and attorney who has worked tirelessly on behalf of Native people throughout his career,” he said in a statement. “President Obama nominated him to be an ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Cherokee Nation, along with the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes, has endorsed the Harper nomination to be the first citizen of a federally recognized tribe to serve as a U.S. ambassador.”
Scott Vele, executive director of the Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes (MAST), says, “The Mr. Harper we know and support is a respected, intelligent, strong supporter of Indian country and we will not waver in our support for a brilliant Native American being nominated for the human rights position.” Other MAST leaders, however, say their research is ongoing about the situation.
Berrey says the NCAI leadership’s and other Native leaders’ lack of consideration of Harper’s temperament is wrong. “They want him representing indigenous rights. Why?” he asks. “It makes no sense in the reality of what’s transpired over the last 10 to 15 years. The guy does not care about human rights. He attacked a woman; he attacked a tribal leader, so why should we expect him to fight a battle for [us]?”
Carol Good Bear, one of the Native Americans who was harassed as a result of a letter the Cobell legal team sent in 2010 listing her address and phone number after she appealed the Cobell settlement, says it is important for tribes and organizations that have supported Harper’s nomination to consider his disposition.
“NCAI needs to wake up and get things right,” Good Bear says. “Harper is not a man of character and [he] exhibits no moral or ethical integrity.”
Several tribes and organizations that sent letters of support to the Foreign Relations Committee before the allegations were made public are taking time to reassess their positions.
“Majel Russell is under contract with our tribe, so I will visit her on this, and she’s a good attorney for us,” says Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes.
“If it’s true, it sure is not good,” says Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives. “I will let the process move forward and see questions raised. I am sure it will be a thorough vetting.”