Alaska News

Head of Alaska’s largest Native organization says she’s leaving to make way for ‘new people and new ideas’

Julie Kitka, the longtime president of the state’s most prominent Alaska Native organization, is stepping down after 33 years.

In an interview, Kitka said she wants to make room for new leadership and vision at the Alaska Federation of Natives, a group that since 1966 has advanced Alaska Native interests.

“I just thought it would be good for the organization to let new people and new ideas shape it,” she said.

The transition will mark a significant change for a group that has been a powerful force in Alaska politics for decades. AFN represents about 140,000 Alaskans with wide-ranging views, plus hundreds of Native corporations and federally recognized tribes.

Kitka has led the group a lot longer than any past president. She’s soft-spoken but methodical and persistent, current and former AFN leaders say. Her longtime leadership has helped boost the group’s standing among policymakers nationally, they say.

Kitka downplays her role at AFN and credits teamwork for any of the group’s successes. She said she expects to leave AFN perhaps after the U.S. presidential election in the fall, or possibly sooner. That period of time designed will allow a careful, “planned transition,” she said.

At her request, the group’s board has developed a succession and search committee to find a new leader, she said.


The 38-member board also has hired The Foraker Group to help with the transition, AFN said in a February statement. Foraker provides development services to nonprofits and tribes. The group plans to have a new president in time for its annual convention in October.

Kitka has been “a force for stability and action” for AFN and Alaska Natives, AFN’s statement said.

Kitka joined the organization as a bookkeeper in the early 1980s. She later served as a Washington, D.C., lobbyist for the group, and its vice president, before she was elected president in 1990.

“Some of her impressive accomplishments include helping greatly expand the Native health system, advocating and pursuing policies to fulfill the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act’s vision for sustainable economies, and helping to build public-private partnerships that benefit all Alaska Native communities,” AFN said in its statement.

Kitka’s decision follows a rocky period for the group’s membership.

Since 2019, a few important tribal and corporate organizations have left, some citing tensions over issues such as salmon or land — resources that Alaska Natives cite as critical to their survival and spiritual well-being. The departing members include the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., representing Native shareholders from the oil-rich North Slope region, and the Tanana Chiefs Conference, representing tribes in the Interior.

Longtime AFN leaders have emphasized that the group deals with thorny issues and a range of views and regional characteristics. They say members occasionally have left over the years, only to return as tensions have eased.

Janie Leask served as AFN president for seven years in the 1980s, making her the group’s second-longest serving president.

Leask said membership can ebb and flow over various political issues. AFN can be like a “bucket of crabs,” with different groups sometimes crawling all over one another to get to the top, Leask said.

“Julie has played such a great role in holding the family together,” Leask said.

“She’s done so much to build the reputation of AFN, nationally and internationally,” she said. “She’s quiet, but she’s so strong.”

AFN has also waded into state and national issues and elections. It supported the controversial Willow oil project approved by the Biden administration. It endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, and later called on Clinton’s opponent, former President Donald Trump, to resign for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, uprising at the U.S. Capitol.

The group in 2022 endorsed Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola. In 2014, it endorsed Democratic former Sen. Mark Begich, who lost to Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan.

The group’s co-chairs, Ana Hoffman and Joe Nelson, praised Kitka’s hard work and commitment as central to the group’s influence.

Kitka’s ability to convene important people, from Native leaders across Alaska to decision-makers in D.C., is clear each year at the AFN convention, Hoffman said.

The event, an economic powerhouse for the host city, brings together thousands of Alaskans from across the state. It’s attended by presidential Cabinet members, top military brass, leading Alaska politicians, corporate heavyweights and others.

“The agenda of the convention shows the impact that AFN has within our state, and that impacts the activity of Congress,” Hoffman said.


AFN has also organized other events that attract top national leaders, including Alaska Day, which began in 2018. The annual forum brings AFN leaders together with policymakers and others in Washington, D.C., to discuss Native priorities and Alaska issues. Top members of the Biden administration participated last year.

“Everybody knows what AFN is,” Nelson said. “And I think that’s the most powerful thing. Julie has been a consistent leader that everybody knows, and from administration to administration, whether state or federal or anywhere. There’s a name, an acronym there, that resonates and commands attention in a way that wouldn’t be possible without her consistent leadership.”

“We have a saying in our Native world that sometimes we are standing on the shoulders of our ancestors who have done all the work before us,” he said. “And Julie’s done her service and her time, and has built something that’s huge, with a tiny, tiny team.”

Kitka stressed that any accomplishments at AFN have been a group effort, both in the organization and outside as it built ties with state and national leaders.

“Anything we accomplished, it was always done with other people,” she said. “It was never by ourselves. We’ve always had teams and coalitions, working with our (congressional) delegation, working within the system, trying to be smart, trying to stretch our resources further.”

She said that after leaving AFN, she will stay involved in issues that are important in Alaska. She did not disclose her future plans.

“I have this value system that is really driven to pull people together and to move forward,” she said. “So I’m not going to sit back or move to Hawaii or anything like that. I’m going to continue to see what I can do to help.”

Kitka said some of AFN’s important accomplishments during her time included successfully defending Alaska Native hunting and fishing rights. The group for decades has supported the rural subsistence priority that’s viewed as vital for Alaska Native families. Last year, AFN joined the federal government in a lawsuit against the state of Alaska to uphold that protection.


The group also successfully fought for critical amendments to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, including provisions that ensured the continued Native ownership of the corporations and the land, and that led to opportunities for corporations to secure valuable federal contracts.

Kitka said she was also proud of the time she testified as a character witness at the federal trial of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens in 2008, before corruption charges and the case against the Alaska senator were dismissed.

“One of the biggest honors,” Kitka said.

AFN hopes to take applications for the president position starting in March.

Hoffman said AFN sees the transition process as a “testament to Julie’s service as a leader.”

Kitka’s legacy is not just what AFN accomplished during her time with the group, Hoffman said. Her legacy is also about what AFN will become.

Nelson said that news of Kitka’s departure brought a “pause” as he, Hoffman and other AFN leaders considered what it would mean.

But Kitka emphasized the need for the group to find a replacement and keep moving forward, Nelson said.

It became a “roll-up-our-sleeves moment,” he said.

That was followed by “measured excitement” that AFN will have a conversation about its future, Nelson said.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or