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ANCHORAGE, Alaska – The National Congress of American Indians is missing its key leader as it kicks off its annual midyear conference in Anchorage, Alaska. With some 200 tribes among its membership, NCAI is the nation’s largest tribal advocacy organization.

NCAI board president Fawn Sharp, Quinault, said CEO Dante Desiderio, of the Sappony tribe, is “on administrative leave, which right now is appropriate under the organization’s policies governing the current facts as we know them at this point. The current situation is something I'm not at liberty to discuss, obviously. It’s a personnel matter.” NCAI issued a statement on the situation, before the conference’s start.

Desiderio began his position as CEO more than one year ago on May 11. His position is in charge of day-to-day management and operations, and advocacy policy research, according to the NCAI website. He oversaw NCAI’s governance center created “to build national awareness of Indian Country issues.” Desiderio reported to the NCAI executive committee, which is made up of tribal leaders from all regions of the country.

The situation prompts memories of earlier personnel issues at NCAI. Former CEO Jackie Johnson Pata, Tlingit, resigned in February 2019 amid complaints she mishandled allegations of sexual harassment by the organization’s former lead counsel and attorney. She had served for 18 years as NCAI’s CEO. The person hired to replace her, Kevin Allis, of the Forest County Potawatomi Community, left the position after 18 months.

(Related: Who will be next? ‘One of the hardest jobs in the world,’ leading the National Congress of American Indians)

Gonzolo Flores, Lipan Apache of Texas and NCAI vice president for the Southern Plains region, said the real strength of the organization is in the hundreds of tribes in its membership. “NCAI is a great vehicle for us. And even though there are personnel issues that are going on, I am very confident with the NCAI members and the leaders that are here. We are a tribal organization and we are all about self-determination to make sure that our great-grandchildren see our vision.”

NCAI President Fawn Sharp, March 20, 2022. Sharp is also the Vice President of the Quinault Indian Nation. (Photo by Dalton Walker, Indian Country Today)

Harold C. Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and vice president of NCAI’s Great Plains region, said he’s concerned that NCAI has drifted from its original purpose to protect tribal sovereignty. Frazier has previously unsuccessfully run for the office of board president.

Alaska Native for-profit corporations are associate members of NCAI. “They're not sovereign. I mean, if you're chartered under a state of the United States that ain't sovereignty,” Frazier said.

He said tribes were “created by God,” and “have their roots in the time prior to the United States. To create an organization under man-made laws, that, to me, is not sovereign,” Frazier said.

He said that’s why the Cheyenne River Sioux and other tribes sued over Alaska Native corporations receiving funding under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Lower courts split on whether Alaska Native corporations, created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, should receive a share of the $8 billion allocated in 2020 for tribes. The Supreme Court ruled in June 2020 that Alaska Native corporations constitute “Indian tribes” under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, making them eligible for $500 million in federal coronavirus relief.

(Related: Alaska Native corporations win COVID-19 aid case)

As for leadership at NCAI, Frazier said, “I think we need to regroup. We had a board retreat a couple months back and I was a little disappointed ‘cause it was only one day. I think that we need to get back and really start with the basics. You know, let's review our mission statement. Let's review and let's look at our organizational chart and things like that.

“Let's get strong internally, ‘cause there's so much out there and, and we can't be neglecting that ‘cause people at home are really needing us. They need leadership and you know, having internal problems is not very good for the people at all.” Frazier said the focus needs to be on education, healthcare, infrastructure, roads, and sovereignty, not corporate needs.

In this Feb. 28, 2017, file photo, Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe leaves federal court in Washington. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem appeared headed Monday, May 11, 2020, for a legal confrontation with two Native American Indian tribes over highway checkpoints intended to keep the coronavirus away from their reservations. Both tribes said over the weekend the checkpoints would stand on their reservations. “We will not apologize for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death,” Frazier said in a statement. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen File)

Lance Gumbs, tribal representative and ambassador for the Shinnecock Indian Nation in New York, and NCAI vice president for the Northeast region, said he’s been on the board of NCAI in one capacity or another for 14 years. “I went through some of the other issues that we've had as a board and it's a growing and learning process … As (tribal) chairman Frazier said so eloquently earlier, the organization is about the protections and the rights of tribes in this country and standing for, and advocating for all of the tribes on the many issues and policies that come out of Washington…

“And so it's about that advocacy and moving forward in a way that our voices are heard in Washington, D.C. And, you know, this is the premier tribal organization, tribal leadership driven. That's what we have to get back to and really focus on … As a board member, we have to listen to those tribal leaders out there, and what they're saying, and then carry out their wishes, not the wishes of the organization, but the wishes of the tribal leadership that's out there that are who we're supposed to be advocating for.”

An NCAI spokesperson said with the CEO on administrative leave, the remaining top leadership within the organization has 20 years experience with NCAI and has stepped up, so operations are smooth.

Sharp said the midyear conference is going very well and turnout is “amazing.” She said, “in fact, I think this is probably a record year.” She said 900 people pre-registered. Usually attendees number from 500 to 800 at the midyear conference so 900 “is an incredible number, given a midyear as well as given a location here in Alaska. Historically, this is a low turnout area, pre-pandemic.

“And then also just the energy and walking through the hallways and talking to folks, we had a tribal leader reception last night that was well attended and Sen. (Lisa) Murkowski was with us and just seeing people, happy getting back together, hugging,” Sharp said.

She said NCAI is as strong as ever and committed to its work advocating for tribes to Congress, which, she said “is not even coming close to living up to treaty responsibilities, and that's a point of advocacy that National Congress of American Indians has been pressing for decades.

2022 NCAI Executive Committee Retreat at the Gila River Resorts and Casino, Wild Horse Pass, March 19, 2022. Back row: Pacific Regional VP Jack Potter, Jr., Great Plains Regional VP Harold Frazier, Eastern Oklahoma Regional VP Norman Hildebrand, Midwest Regional VP Alt. Shelley Buck, Western Regional VP Bernadine Burnette, Northeast Regional VP Lance Gumbs, Alaska Regional VP Mike Williams, Southern Plains Regional VP Alt. Nita Battise, Southeast Regional VP Reggie Tupponce, Alaska Regional VP Alt. Rob Sanderson, Jr., Southwest Regional VP Joe Garcia, Rocky Mountain Regional VP Mark Pollock. Front row: NCAI CEO Dante Desiderio, 1st Vice President Mark Macarro, President Fawn Sharp, Treasurer Shannon Holsey, Secretary Stephen Roe Lewis (Photo courtesy of NCAI)

She pointed to a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report eight years ago that concluded, “not one federal agency is living up to its trust responsibility. And they provided that report to Congress.” However, Sharp said, NCAI has friends and allies in Congress who are working out how to implement some of the recommendations in the report.

She also said tribal leaders have occupied a leadership position for the average U.S. citizen as well as for tribal citizens, for instance, in the area of climate change.

”Elected officials here in the United States are bound by special interests, in other words, bound by the heavy influence of big oil in the fossil fuel industry when they know that we are facing the existential threat of climate change,” Sharp said.

“So you have tribes across the country … protecting this landscape, not only for our citizens and our future generations, but for all of the United States. I think the average citizen is starting to understand that with the absence of political leadership on the most pressing issues of our generation, it's tribal leaders that are stepping up to defend that which is sacred for all future generations,” she said.

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Corrected to include NCAI vice president titles.

NCAI owned ICT from 2018 to 2021, and ICT operated independently. The two organizations split in March 2021.

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