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Suzan Harjo remembers the challenge of running the National Congress of American Indians. Her staff wore multiple hats, worked long hours, juggled multiple projects, and tried to answer the question, “what do the people want?” 

So much easier asked than answered. The people, the tribes, the larger constituents, the funders, want everything. It’s a problem that is as true today as it was for Harjo and every other executive director of any national Indian organization.

Take the listening session in Washington, D.C., last month, hosted by NCAI. Some tribal leaders wanted government-to-government consultation. The White House wanted a 150-minute listening session and then get out.

Oglala Sioux President Julian Bear Runner had hoped the meeting would produce a direct, in-person government-to-government consultation (without NCAI’s involvement.) He didn’t want to talk to to Trump’s advisors but insisted he should speak with the president himself. Bear Runner said that was the promise made in treaties and one that Barack Obama fulfilled during his administration.

But the Interior Department had its own ideas about that meeting.

And, as host, it was NCAI’s task to make it so. Its goal for the meeting, following a resolution enacted by NCAI members, was to create a White House Council on Native Nations.

Other tribes had a different idea: Invite President Donald J. Trump to visit their communities. Still others wanted nothing to do with the White House or federal government. They’d rather solve their issues with protests and grass-root movements.

Another routine day for a coalition of tribes working on similar issues. Managing the wants of all these tribes would be difficult for any organization. There’s a demand to examine and look for solutions on issues affecting urban and reservation Indians, land-based and landless tribes, federally-recognized tribes and state-recognized tribes, large and small tribes, rich and poor tribes, casino-owning and non-casino owning tribes.

Work together and it’s a coalition. This is challenge with a history.

When Harjo told her good friend, Vine Deloria, Jr., that she was asked to put her name in to be considered for the executive director position in the 1970s, he told her, “Don’t do it!” Deloria served as executive director from 1964 to 1967.

“He told me about being so overwhelmed one night that he crawled under his desk and just sobbed because he knew how much there was to be done and how little he could do,” she wrote in a email to Indian Country Today. “Later, when I told him I was going to do it anyway, he got right to work with a list of things ‘we’ could do.”

Jacqueline Pata’s 18-year tenure

Executive Director Jacqueline Pata resigned in mid-February after leading the national organization for 18 years, the longest-serving executive director in NCAI history. Her resignation followed a four-month leave from the organization while a board committee looked into sexual harassment and human resource issues. It was after the board had reinstated Pata in January that she decided to move on.

Pata, Tlingit, took over NCAI in 2001 and has worked with five different NCAI presidents: Susan Masten, Tex Hall, Joe A. Garcia, Brian Cladoosby and Jefferson Keel. In addition to three presidents of the United States.

“When I arrived in 2001, NCAI was sending out action alerts to tribal leaders via fax machine,” she wrote in an email to Indian Country Today.

In that same year the Tribal Sovereignty Protection Initiative, made of tribes, was created in response to Supreme Court decisions that “demonstrated an accelerating trend toward diminishing tribal jurisdiction on their lands.”

She doesn’t necessarily remember 2001 for 9/11 but for the sovereignty initiative.

“I will never forget that day: September 11, 2001. NCAI had convened approximately 200 tribal leaders in Washington, D.C. to launch the Sovereignty Protection Initiative,” she said.

During her term, she worked to create the NCAI Policy Research Center, a think tank for issues involving Native communities. It began in 2003 as a way to provide data and analysis for policy development in Indian Country. It was initially named the National Center for American Indian Research and Policy Analysis.

White House Tribal Nations Conference during the Obama administration.

White House Tribal Nations Conference during the Obama administration.

To increase the government-to-government relationship, she launched the State of Indian Nations address in 2003. This annual event communicated broad concerns, accomplishments, and goals for Indian Country to a larger audience.

The organization purchased the Embassy of Tribal Nations on P Street, several blocks away from the White House, in 2009. After a national fundraising campaign, the “first permanent headquarters for tribal nations in the nation’s capital” was accomplished.

“Tribal leaders had long envisioned creating a “Hall of States” for tribal nations in Washington, D.C. We strategically named it the “Embassy of Tribal Nations” to teach and remind policymakers and the general public that tribes are nations, and deserve – and demand – to be treated as such,” Pata wrote. “The Embassy’s establishment has served as a catalyst for, among other things, developing relationships with other countries through their embassies, which has helped to elevate and advance Indian Country’s priorities in international forums like the United Nations.”

The space also gave the organization the energy to create the Native Vote campaign, focus and achieve success in the Cobell Settlement, eight years of preparations for the historic White House Tribal Nations Conference under the Obama Administration, get youth involvement for the Generation Indigenous Native Youth Challenge, bring together minds to battle the reduction of national monuments, brainstorm ways to combat the mascots across the country and build numerous task forces for Native issues.

Pata’s 18 years comes to an end in an era of faster technology. As former NCAI President Brian Cladoosby wrote, “change represents opportunity.” He talked about the new administration and Congress, but that same line can be applied to the transition to a new leader of the oldest national Indian organization (who had its own ups and downs during its existence).

Jacqueline Pata, Robert Holden and former NCAI president Brian Cladoosby at a National Congress of American Indians event in 2016.

Jacqueline Pata, Robert Holden and former NCAI president Brian Cladoosby at a National Congress of American Indians event in 2016.

Pata said Indian Country must have an intertribal advocate.

“Indian Country needs to stay united on the most important issues facing tribal governments and communities, even the most difficult and complex ones. We achieve the most for our communities and our generations yet to come when we work together as one. NCAI’s founders recognized that fact, which is why they created this organization as a congress (like the U.S. Congress), whose job it is to provide tribal nations a mechanism to reach a consensus on the best paths forward when it comes to the greatest issues that Native people face,” she wrote. “The opponents of tribal sovereignty have always looked to divide and conquer tribal nations, and they have been emboldened by the current political environment. That is why it is imperative that tribal nations advocate with a common purpose and common messages to protect and advance their inherent sovereign rights to control their own lands and affairs.”

The transition from Pata to the new executive director will happen by mid-May, according to a letter sent out by President Jefferson Keel. The organization has an advertisement for the post of chief executive officer. NCAI is seeking “a visionary, progressive executive to lead the organization to the next level as a national educational and advocacy entity.”

So there’s an opportunity for someone to breathe new life into the organization, especially following the sexual harassment and workplace complaints.

President Keel, Chickasaw, wrote a letter to membership on March 8 addressing the workplace concerns, and reported steps NCAI is taking to fix it. One step was the creation of an ad hoc committee to look into the workplace misconduct.

The “ad hoc committee’s mandate was broadened” so the executive committee hired Quarles & Brady LLP “to conduct an independent review into past concerns raised by employees and how they were handled, as well as a review of NCAI’s policies, procedures, and organizational structure.”

The firm and ad hoc committee presented the results to the executive committee on Feb. 10 in a three-hour meeting which “thoroughly demonstrated that a vigorous analysis had been performed.”

“The review did identify several areas where NCAI’s policies, practices, and procedures should be strengthened, particularly in the areas of human resources and communications between the Executive Committee and management,” Keel wrote. “As we move forward, we are committed to reinforcing a culture of respect and ensuring our employees are supported and feel that they can come forward with any concern.”

The organization said it is taking steps to strengthen the workplace and look at human resources, the organization's operation process, employee policies, the complaint process, trainings on harassment and complaint policies for everyone in the organization, and training for supervisors. NCAI is also advertising for a new post, human resource director.

Ahniwake Rose, Cherokee, was hired as the new deputy director in December. Rose served as the executive director for the National Indian Education Association for more than four years. She previously worked for NCAI as the policy director and legislative analyst from 2007 to 2012.

An external review of the employee policies and human resources process is completed and the executive committee will meet soon to put into place other recommendations.

Another fix is the complaints process itself. The organization told members that they hired an “external expert to review its policies and procedures for handling complaints … ” This coincides with the audit of the organization’s workplace culture. According to the letter, this audit “included confidential interviews with current and former staff and other stakeholders, to get a better sense of the current work climate at NCAI.”

“This audit found that there is not a culture of sexually inappropriate behavior at NCAI and found no threat to the safety of our staff. Staff appeared to be very candid during these interviews, but no new allegations of sexually inappropriate conduct were reported beyond those that were already known to the Ad Hoc Committee.”

“It is critical to note that the allegations regarding sexually inappropriate behavior were against former employees and the most recent was alleged to have occurred in 2016. In other words, the audit found, no current employee had been accused of sexually inappropriate behavior,” Keel wrote. “While there were many rumors, this outside firm found no facts to support the rumors. The firm did find that some employees were apprehensive about bringing forward concerns. We are working hard to fix this, including ensuring that we create an environment of support for coming forward early with concerns so they can be responsibly addressed.”

The organization will look to its new executive director to make further changes.

“We are committed to finding the right leader to guide the organization in the important work we have before us and we realize that in this rapidly changing, modern era, NCAI needs to keep pace to serve tribal nations effectively,” Keel said.

One of the priorities for the next executive director will be figuring out how to address the government-to-government relationship between tribes and the federal government.

White House listening session

Oglala Sioux and other tribal leaders walked out of a White House listening session when they disagreed on path.

NCAI approached a nation-to-nation relationship with the Trump administration, after two years of not reaching out to tribal nations, with a White House listening session during the organization’s policy summit.

At the bottom of the summit agenda stated “Federal Government Consultations and Listening Sessions are open and do not require registration for NCAI’s Executive Council Winter Session.” A disclaimer that is always printed at the bottom of their agendas, according to Mari Hulbutta, a former legislative fellow at NCAI.

(ICYMI: ‘Horrible’ White House session raises ‘serious issues’ with tribal leaders)

NCAI said there is a difference between a listening session and a consultation.

Listening sessions are “lesser degree of interface and usually occur prior to consultations. In fact, sometimes listening sessions are used to scope which areas an agency may want to hold official consultation on in the future. Listening sessions are helpful early on in the process and particularly where the agency is contemplating how to begin shaping policy and regulations and want to inform tribes of their thinking and provide other foundational information before actually developing policies or regulations,” said NCAI press relations in an email to Indian Country Today,

As for consultations, it is “a formalized process that each agency head is required to have in place in accordance with Executive Order 13175,” as stated in the email. “This process is the federal approach to government to government policy and regulation development that ensures tribes, as governments, have sufficient notice and opportunity for input where an agency is contemplating policies or regulations that potentially implicate tribes or tribal regulatory authority.”

“Best practices usually include, if possible, 30 days’ notice to tribes about the scope of consultation, and also draft documents to discuss if possible. In addition, the locations for consultations should provide, ideally, for robust input in or near all BIA regions and some agencies have included telephonic options to. The latter should only be in addition to, and not in substitute for, actually face to face consultation opportunities.”

The email said, “NCAI advocates for meaningful government to government consultation whenever and wherever possible and continues to urge future White House engagement with tribal leaders, including establishing the White House Council on Native Nations.”

However, as reported, Oglala Sioux president Julian Bear Runner disagreed with the approach and he wanted a direct government-to-government consultation.

Hulbutta, Chickasaw and a second-year law student at Columbia University, said tribes do have access to congressional members, federal agencies and federal officials regardless of NCAI membership.

But NCAI supplements that “by helping to facilitate these meetings all in one week” and the organization doesn’t mean to take that away.

“You can meet with 10 different agencies if you wanted to. It’s going to be a space provided for you in, instead of a tribe having one of their tribal employees organize all of this and everything,” she said.

The law student understood the Oglala Sioux leader’s concerns, especially about the membership. But she wanted to remind tribes that if they hold an NCAI membership that “they dictate the NCAI policy agenda. It’s not the other way around. It’s bottom up. It’s not top down.”

National organizations, such as NCAI, have to manage relationships among tribes and between tribes. And, she said, managing relationships between and among parties within the federal government “is just as contentious.”

Harjo said managing those relationships and different approaches is where NCAI can be “so instrumental.”

“Not by taking a side, but by making separate, developing separate coalitions around separate approaches to separate kinds of interactions because you don't have to unify how this nation deals with the United States or this nation deals with the United States. That's the business of the nation. That's not the business of NCAI and it's not NCAI's job to mollify it or modify it or to tamp down the voices of the Native nations. That's the job of the people, the sovereign people.,” she said. “We talk about inherent sovereignty. That's what it means. That it's the voice of the people as in the nation. And that's not NCAI's job to put that into a blender and tried to make it come out all nice with happy history on the other side.”

Different leadership but same issues

Back in Harjo’s leadership days, her staff and Indian Country altogether had to fight against (and defeated) huge budget cuts, the turnover of Indian education and tribal resources to the states, anti-Indian and anti-treaty hate groups and the attempt to privatize Indian funds all under the Ronald Reagan administration.

“And one thing, and probably the smartest decision we ever made, was going into it we knew that it was going to be a bad administration for us because it already was,” she said.

She took advantage of the negative attention of hate groups and directed that energy toward her cultural rights agenda because that is what the people wanted. The cultural concerns committee, which at the time was the largest committee of the organization, pressed for the National Museum of American Indian and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The museum came through in 1989 and 11 months after that, the law was enacted. It took 15 years of negotiations for the museum before it finally opened in 2004.

They had to work with a wide network for the museum and act. She, Deloria Jr., N. Scott Momaday and several others were on the board for the museum.

The different backgrounds and expertises contributed to a consolidated effort to make sure the museum was Native-directed, she said.

“We would not have been able to do that without our really broad network of people who knew exactly what we were doing, what we were talking about and had worked it out so that every nuance was covered,” she said.

Back then their “amazing, strong, wise, courageous Native leaders and spiritual leaders” were comprised of leaders from the Affiliated Tribes of the Northwest Indians, Nez Perce, Gila River Indian Community and a chairwoman of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes.

“Some [leaders] were the same and some [leaders] were very different,” she said. “It was really more of a people's movement kind of group and we've really emphasized traditional languages, heritage languages, and did all of the information sharing and deep discussion and cultural exchanges in effect that led to the kind of law that we crafted as the repatriation laws of the United States.”

The makeup of NCAI looked very different back then from what it does now, Harjo reflected.

And that’s evident from Thomas W. Cowger’s book, “The National Congress of American Indians: The Founding Years.” He captured the diversity of Native people who attended the first NCAI convention in in Denver.

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“Although many representatives came from urban areas, the convention drew better-than-expected reservation-based support. On the whole, the convention attendees represented an equal blend of young and old, full-bloods and mixed bloods, and highly educate and less formally educated Indians,” he wrote. “Among the founding members was an impressive array of Indian leadership -- anthropologists, lawyers, business people, elected state and federal officials, tribal leaders, and even a former professional baseball player George Eastman, Santee Sioux.”

Audience at the 2014 Alaska Federation of Natives in Alaska. 

Audience at the 2014 Alaska Federation of Natives in Alaska. 

That diversity of Native people with different ideas, and possibly different solutions.

“You listen to everyone 'cause you never know where the answer's going to come from,” Harjo said. “You'll never know who's gone to school and done a doctoral dissertation on something. You never really know who all is assembled in any given place. You just have to assume that everyone there is thinking, how can this be done a little better? And it may not be the be end all be all and end all idea. It may not be the lightning flash idea, but it could be a corrective remedy. It could be an interim step to the next big idea.”

Many of these ideas have led to forming coalitions inside NCAI and connecting those with outside coalitions.

“The important things about NCAI are its ability to build and maintain coalitions,” Harjo said. “It doesn't mean there's consensus, doesn't mean everyone agrees on the identical thing, but it agrees that it means that everyone has agreed to go forward with a unified plan on this. And then you worry about the details later.

The cost of building a coalition

One of the problems of the modern intertribal coalition is the cost to build and operate it.

“NCAI has priced its conventions and other meetings out of reach by economically disadvantaged Native people’s, so the organizational perspective is missing that once reflected and represented impoverished and lower economic class Native peoples, only the majority of us in the U.S,” Harjo said.

Very few tribes with large land bases are now part of the organization because the membership dues are calculated on income and population.

“There are fewer and fewer NCAI members that are Native Nations with large land bases, and more and more with small land bases,” Harjo wrote in an email. “The system does not take into account land size and disadvantages those with lots of land and far greater population than others.”

She said the range of 100 to 180 votes affects the ability of two ‘small tribes’ canceling out the votes of one ‘big tribe.’ There’s also a 180 voting cap with big tribes with a population more than 7,500 citizens.

“No nation’s territory is counted or population above some 15,000 (or so, as it used to be) is counted for voting purposes, but population counts for everything when it comes to NCAI dues,” she said. “The whole thing needs to be rethought before all the large land-based tribes begin to leave NCAI permanently.”

For example the largest tribal nation, the Navajo Nation, has never been a member of NCAI.

Santee Lewis, the new executive director of the Navajo Nation Washington office, said is in tribal law and allows them to advocate for Navajo citizens. The office opened in 1984.

“You have more control for what you can lobby for,” she said. “The Navajo Nation can advocate for issues that is important to Navajo people. We don’t have to rely on any organization to provide a voice for the Navajo people.”

Pata said over time more tribes hired their own lobbyists in Washington, while NCAI continued to advocated for all of its members, even those without lobbyists.

“In earlier days, tribal nations didn’t have the resources to have their own lobbyists working on their behalf here in Washington, D.C. Today, many do, and as formal representatives of tribal nations, NCAI works closely with them just as they do tribal leaders because, again, it is critical that we present a united front to the federal government, a front that is equipped from one end to the other with the same messages, educational resources, and advocacy tools to effectively make Indian Country’s case,” Pata said. “For example, NCAI routinely provides tribal lobbyists with critical advocacy resources, from our “Tribal Nations and the United States” booklet to our Indian Country Budget Request to our regular Policy Updates.”

Tribal leaders, the National Congress of American Indians and others at a meeting. 

Tribal leaders, the National Congress of American Indians and others at a meeting. 

In the case of non-NCAI coalitions like the All Pueblo Council of Governors, made up of the 20 governors of pueblos in New Mexico, and Alaskan Native corporations and tribal governments, they work on their issues unique to the Alaskan Native communities while working with intertribal national organizations, such as NCAI.

Pata said that the national organization maintains “open lines of communication with these groups so that we can keep our finger on the pulse of what’s going on in tribal communities across the country and task our advocacy, education, and resource development efforts accordingly.”

“For many of these organizations that have limited resources, NCAI also serves as their eyes and ears here in the nation’s capital. Conversely, these organizations serve as the wellspring for many of the resolutions that NCAI adopts,” she said.

There are alternatives for tribes that do not have the luxury, money, or resources to advocate for themselves at a national level.

Tribes can look into options like state offices of their congressional members, build rapport with congressional members via letters, phone calls and in-person conversations, and tracking bills and laws. All which have a tie to the federal level. Lewis says these alternatives “may be negative as well.”

“By not having a presence in Washington the tribe may not understand the politics at play. Because they're limiting themselves to those in-person conversations and visiting other congressional men and women in others states,” she said. “It’s a delicate issue.”

Alaska Federation of Natives

Alaskan Natives found a way to address this distance from Washington. They formed the Alaska Federation of Natives in 1966 which comprised of about 400 Alaskan Natives from 17 Native organizations to talk about their land rights initially. They played a critical role in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that was signed into law in 1971.

Over time, the organization evolved into addressing the unique relationship Alaskan Native people and the federal government have as they work differently from the tribes in the lower 48, or on the mainland.

AFN’s annual convention is larger that NCAI’s annual event. Both conventions are held in October, typically back to back.

“The convention is the largest representative annual gathering in the United States of Native peoples” with approximately 6,000 attendees each year and it is broadcasted on television, radio and live-streamed to 70 countries.

Attendees only worry about the costs of lodging, food, art, and travel. There’s no conference fee. People can purchase banquet tickets if they’re interested. The convention is funded by large donations from Alaska Native corporations and other companies that do business in that state.

Alaska Federation of Natives in 2013. (Office of Governor Sean Parnell, Flickr)

Dancers at the 2013 Alaska Federation of Natives in Alaska.

Those who attend NCAI’s annual convention pay a conference fee of several hundred dollars plus the cost of lodging, food, travel, and, of course, art.

It’s an expensive week -- one that many tribal citizens and leaders say they cannot afford.

Besides the cost difference, there’s also a broadcast difference. NCAI records their events for later use. AFN, however, broadcasts the event live via television, radio and the Web across the state and to some 70 countries.

Both organizations collaborate “at the direction of tribal nations” to co-host “tribal-specific issues meetings in conjunction with AFN’s annual conference.”

Other intertribal coalitions

AFN wasn’t the first time off-road thinking happened in the 1960s. Other organizations formed outside of NCAI.

The American Indian Chicago Conference, led by Robert Burnette who was later an NCAI executive director, formed in 1961. The AICC drafted the “Declaration of Indian Purpose” which listed the big issues Indian Country faced and was delivered to President John F. Kennedy.

College students broke away from this conference and national organization formed the National Indian Youth Council, which still exists today, because they tired of AICC and didn’t like the slow pace NCAI operated in when reacting to federal Indian policies, according to Cowger.

The youth organization “advocated militancy and quickly became a major player on the Indian political scene” and “brought a confrontational style to Indian politics.” They modeled after “the black militant protesters” when they protested for hunting and fishing rights as promised in the treaties.

“Clearly the NIYC represented a logical and natural outgrowth of the NCAI,” wrote Cowger. “Since its inception, NCAI founders had strongly encouraged the education and training of young Indian leadership.”

The youth’s approach led to the conception of the American Indian Movement in the late 1960s. The movement wanted another way to address issues affecting “relocated urban Indians.”

Deloria said NCAI took a legislative approach (due to the large number of reservation Indians they served) versus the youth movements in the 1960s.

“The NCAI preferred to continue to fight its battles in the halls of Congress than to protest publically at targeted sites,” wrote Cowger. “While carrying on its role as legislative watchdog, the NCAI retained its interest in programs that affected reservations as a whole and places less emphasis on urban Indians.”

NCAI was born as a response to and focused on the termination era, and led as a sole voice for Indian Country. But the organization “went from the leading voice in Indian affairs to a more subscribed role” which was “another significant turning point.”

NCAI history & internal conflicts

While these outgrowths happened during the “Camelot years of the Kennedy Administration,” internal conflicts went on at NCAI, said Charles Trimble, former NCAI executive director, said in a speech written for the 2018 convention in Denver.

Similar infighting occurred in the 1950s when Robert Burnette chased Helen Peterson, Oglala Lakota, from the NCAI executive director position and Joseph R. Garry, Coeur D’Alene, as NCAI president.

Former NCAI executive director Helen Peterson.

Former NCAI executive director Helen Peterson.

Burnette, who was part of the executive committee, and other members of the committee accused Peterson and Garry of “unsubstantiated financial offenses against the organization,” Trimble said. The attacks continued after the two were out of the organization and “internal discord continued for the next four years.”

The focus was set on the bickering rather than “taking advantage of that window of opportunity for legislative and policy changes … ”

Former President Lyndon B. Johnson announced a war on poverty in 1964 and out came the Administration for Native Americans in the early 1970s. They still operate out of Washington today.

There also has been several times that NCAI’s purpose and existence as a national organization has been questioned. But what coalition, organization, company or institution does not have problems?

According to Trimble, the organization faced “financial problems from the state and operated on a shoestring for most of its first fifty years … ” As the leadership changed and conflicts happened during late 20th century, Indian organizations kept much of their focus on sovereignty and self-determination.

What if there was no NCAI?

Former NCAI communications associate Sarah Beccio, Isleta Pueblo, said she’d rather Indian Country stay under the radar than be on the radar with the current administration.

There is the question, “What if NCAI no longer existed?” Beccio said she doesn’t want the organization to go away but believes “it’s an important question for tribes to ask.”

“If the answer is nothing, then I guess there’s no longer a purpose for it,” she said. “If the answer is we wouldn’t have X number of benefits of a well-run organization, then you have to find a reason and a pathway to fix it.”

Some people see the solution as stronger alliances, such as Rory Wheeler, co co-president of the NCAI Youth Commission.

“In Indian Country we're currently under assault every single day. We need allies each day where they can help us like with [the Indian Child Welfare Act],” he said and everyone needs to look beyond the differences.

An example of collaboration is the Tohono O’odham Nation. Vice chairman Verlon Jose said his tribe is working with the local Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to secure the border. Tohono O’odham land straddles the U.S. and Mexico border.

The Department of Interior also recently visited Tohono O’odham when one of their Bureau of Indian Education schools needed helped.

Columbia law student Hulbutta recognizes the diversity of our tribal nations and our issues. But what helps tribal citizens and communities build trust is communication and transparency.

“Given the complex and distinct communities that make up Indian Country, a multi-faceted approach is suitable for ensuring responsiveness to tribal interests. National not-for-profit organizations that advocate on behalf of tribes, like NCAI and [Native American Rights Fund], are an incredible resource to tribes seeking supplemental representation at the Federal level,” she said. “In addition, regional tribal advocacy organizations are just as valuable and can voice tribal interests from a more local level. Collectively, tribes and organizations can push forward a unified agenda to protect tribal rights and maintain persistent engagement with Federal officials. In light of the recent changes at NCAI, I hope that more transparent channels of communication exist between the organization and its stakeholders.”

Why lead a national organization?

Harjo said she wanted to take on the position for “all the altruistic and obligatory reasons.” Joe DeLaCruz, Quinault and NCAI president in the early 1980s, also asked her to put her name in.

“I knew that I could do the job better than most,” Harjo said. She wanted to do the job right, different and better even when she was a young widow and single mother of two children at the time. Her husband Frank Ray Harjo died in 1982 at the age of 35. She knew Frank would’ve wanted her to take the job. She redirected her grief.

She took the pay cut despite her law firm coworker’s, Sarge Shriver, concerns, “Aren’t we paying you enough?” They asked her why she would go to “NCAI for less money, more work and inevitable political turmoil.”

“Sarge, it’s our Indian public service,” she said and he responded with a grin, a congratulations and wanted to help.

Harjo said she tries to not be “a pain-in-the-neck former executive director.” But with the current state of the national organization and questions about the next leader she said, “It’s one of the hardest jobs in our world and I wish her/him all the very best in representing and working for us.”

She and her staff didn’t solve all the big problems in Indian Country. They chipped away at it.

“We did a whole lot of stuff and I'm mightily proud of that,” she said over the phone. “But there are big problems left and big institutions to build and big laws that have to be done, whole eras and centuries of history that has to be written right and set right and new laws to be made. Societal change that needs to be made.”

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email:

(Indian Country Today, LLC., is a non-profit news organization owned by the non-profit arm of the The National Congress of American Indians. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently.)