Did racial discrimination, jealousy or something else keep Seneca from becoming director of the National Institutes of Health’s Tribal Health Research Office
In early 2016, Dean Seneca, Seneca Nation of Indians, was offered a terrific job – director of the National Institutes of Health’s newly-established Tribal Health Research Office (THRO). Nearly 20 years of service in public health and a stellar reputation among tribal health advocates made him highly qualified for the position. But he did not get the job, and alleged that racial discrimination against American Indians and Alaska Natives at the Centers for Disease Control may be one reason.
James Anderson, NIH Deputy Director for Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives, announced that Seneca would be heading up THRO at the agency’s February 25 Tribal Consultation Advisory Committee (TCAC) meeting. Dr. Jeff Henderson, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, is founder of the Black Hills Center for American Indian Health in South Dakota. He has known Seneca for more than 15 years. “Dean was introduced to us by the deputy director of NIH as the first appointee to direct the office. We were all delighted to hear that… He’s been very committed to advancing the health of American Indians and Alaska Natives,” Henderson recalls.
Seneca sold his condo in Atlanta at a low-ball price, packed his bags and was on his way to Bethesda when he received the email saying that the job offer had been rescinded without explanation.
On March 3, NIH wrote the official letter confirming the February job offer: “This letter confirms your competitive promotion to the position of Health Science Policy Analyst…within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Office of the Director (OD), Division of Program Coordination, Planning & Strategic Initiatives (DPCPI), Office of the Deputy Director (ODD), Tribal Health Research Office (THRO), with an effective date of April 3, 2016.”
On March 8, Seneca got the email retracting the offer, followed by a letter: “This letter is a follow-up to the communication you received on Thursday, March 3, regarding the position of Director, Tribal Health Research Office, National Institutes of Health. Our previously extended offer of employment is being rescinded as a result of information received.”
In the year since, no explanation has been forthcoming, even though federal rules require that in these circumstances a formal review of the applicant’s qualifications and the “information received” be conducted and evaluated, and that the applicant be able to respond to whatever allegations have been presented, according to Seneca’s attorney, Dennis G. Chappabitty, Comanche Indian Nation of Oklahoma.
Seneca’s troubles with federal employment go back 11 years. In 2006 he filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel “because of a disagreement I had with staff in the Office of Minority Health over who was in charge of Indian health activities at CDC. It was me, an Indian boy from Cattaraugus, versus the very high non-Indian commissioned officers of the [U.S. Public Health Service],” he says.
He filed the complaint after a disagreement at an inter-tribal meeting led to what he describes as a smear campaign against him and the subsequent loss of his job as director of the Office of Tribal Affairs at CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. That effort “went nowhere” and in 2012 he filed a racial discrimination complaint with the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity that is working its way through the system.
Seneca says he is ostracized and mocked in his workplace, the Office for State, Tribal, Local and Territorial Support at CDC. “They call me LSD,” he says, choking back tears. “It stands for Law-Suit Dean.”
He says he has also formally been told not to work with American Indian/Alaska Native tribes, his area of expertise. One Native American colleague at CDC who asked not to be named says, “He is great at being able to talk to tribes about a lot of the more scientific projects in terms that everyone can understand. He networks quite a bit. He knows a lot of tribal officials and also people from tribes, which is kind of missing a lot from CDC sometimes.”
Kaipo Akaka, Native Hawaiian, worked with Seneca at CDC for the six years. “In Georgia [where CDC headquarters is located], there are not too many Native people. And especially at CDC, there are even less Native people. We were a huge minority at CDC. We are a minority in most places, Native people, but even more at CDC. The statistics are horrible on hiring Native people at CDC,” he says.
As of June 30, 2016, CDC had only 27 permanent full-time equivalent employees who self-identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, out of a total workforce of over 9,000 civilian employees. That’s 0.3 percent—less than one-third of 1 percent of CDC employees are American Indian/Alaska Native, even though CDC routinely sends its people to serve on Indian reservations.
Dr. Cara Cowan Watts, Cherokee Nation, first worked with Seneca when they were both on the National American Indian Science and Engineering Society board. Her assessment of Seneca’s professional work: “Dean is competent, passionate, knowledgeable and an actual Native person (not a box checker claiming to be Indian) who has fought for better healthcare outcomes in Indian country since the first day I met him. I personally recommended Dean Seneca for the NIH role,” she says.
As part of his work at CDC, Seneca has been posted overseas—to fight polio in Afghanistan and Ethiopia and Ebola in West Africa.
Watts says, “Dean does not need to be trained to ‘deal with’ Indians or understand our culture because he is one of us. Dean is not a Native who struggles with technical issues since he already comes with a professional degree in public health issues. Dean Seneca is the real deal. He serves our health needs and struggles with our health disparities and more. I am bewildered by what appears to be personality conflicts or other subjective decision-making that have gotten in the way of his service to and for Indian country.”
Why NIH withdrew the job offer remains a matter of speculation. Professional jealousy is one possibility. Personal animosity is another. Jace Weaver, director of the University of Georgia’s Institute of Native American Studies, cites CDC’s last-minute refusal to allow Seneca to teach a course (on his own time, without pay) in Native American health disparities at the university’s College of Public Health, a privilege CDC routinely grants to employees, as an example of seemingly petty harassment.
Weaver says, “After he came back [from Africa], CDC began to make it very hard for him to work in tribal health. They kept trying to get him away from it. They were basically trying to force him out of the organization.” Asked about discrimination at CDC, Weaver notes, “When I went down there, they only had three Native people working in tribal health.”
Others have suggested that the damning information came from tribal members outside of CDC who did not want to work with Seneca. Or maybe it was that Seneca had filed a racial discrimination complaint against CDC. If so, the action was illegal, says Chappabitty. “Federal civil law says that you cannot penalize or seek retribution against an employee because they have engaged in past protected activity, or more specifically filing EEO complaints in good faith to help protect their legal rights under Title VII, the federal discrimination laws,” he says.
Chappabitty says that if internal administrative avenues of redress do not succeed, Seneca will take the issue of the NIH job offer withdrawal to federal court.
What Seneca is looking for, in the short term, is straightforward—he wants the job as director of NIH’s THRO. However, that outcome became even more problematic on January 22 when NIH appointed Dr. David R. Wilson, Diné, to the position, effective February 13.
But what he wants most is justice and a fair hearing. He believes without question that he was treated unjustly by racial discrimination – and probably illegally – to not only his own detriment but to the detriment of all the people whose health he could have helped improve. “I could have really made a difference in 10 years. I could have eliminated some health disparities and I think the people know that I could have done that, but it’s always been about who’s in charge, who’s going to get the credit and that kind of stuff and I never have been about that,” he says.
The National Institutes of Health Office of the Director responded to ICTMN’s request for interviews with NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak and NIH Deputy Director for Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives James Anderson for this story, saying, “NIH does not discuss personnel matters.”