JUNEAU — A former co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives, former board president of the Sealaska Corp. and a retired Democratic state legislator died Friday at his home in the Southeast Alaska town of Angoon. Albert Kookesh was 72.
In remembrances posted online and shared on social media, he was praised for his work with Southeast Alaska’s regional Native corporation, his efforts to preserve Tlingit culture and his state work on subsistence issues. Married to Sally Woods-Kookesh, they had five children and numerous grandchildren.
“Albert was a lifelong advocate for his people, a force in Alaska politics, and a legendary Alaska Native leader,” said former House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham. “He achieved the trifecta of serving in the Senate, as co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives, and as president of the Sealaska board. My thoughts are with his wife, Sally, his entire family, and the community of Angoon.”
Born on Nov. 24, 1948, in Juneau, Kookesh grew up in Angoon, a small, predominantly Native community on Admiralty Island. He attended Mount Edgecumbe School in Sitka, then attended Alaska Methodist University — now Alaska Pacific University — where he played college basketball. The 5-foot-6 Kookesh was the shortest person on the team but was labeled a “hustler” by the Anchorage Times.
He went on to law school at the University of Washington. In 1976, as a third-year law student, he was elected to the Sealaska board of directors under “Operation David and Goliath,” a campaign put together by shareholders who said they felt that the newly formed corporation was neglecting less prominent Tlingit members.
At the same time, he worked with Kootznoowoo Inc., the village corporation of Angoon, and operated a lodge. He ran unsuccessfully for state House in 1978, losing in the Democratic primary for the district covering rural northern Southeast.
In 1993, he was elected co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives and unsuccessfully pushed for the state constitution to be amended to allow rural residents preferential access to hunting and fishing. The state’s failure to pass such an amendment led the federal government to assume authority over subsistence hunting and fishing in many places.
Elected to the state House in 1997, he switched to the Senate in 2004, where he represented a broad rural district. In 2010, he faced an ethics inquiry after implying that constituents in Craig might have a hard time getting funding from the Legislature unless they stopped opposing a Sealaska lands bill. A legislative panel cleared him of wrongdoing, and he apologized for the implication.
He lost re-election to Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, in 2012 after redistricting consolidated their two senate districts into one.
The following year, he suffered a serious heart attack but recovered well enough to serve on the transition team for Gov. Bill Walker. In a 2015 Alaska Supreme Court decision, he successfully defended against an overfishing charge that he said was the result of the state infringing upon subsistence fishing rights.
Kookesh stayed active in politics afterward, endorsing the passage of Ballot Measure 2 in 2020, which will install ranked-choice voting in Alaska.