Julie Kitka to step down as longtime head of the Alaska Federation of Natives

a woman at a podium
Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, conducting business at the 2022 AFN Convention. Kitka has worked in various capacities at AFN since 1981 and has developed a reputation for her ability to effectively represent Alaska Natives before the U.S. Congress and federal agencies. (AFN)

A major transition is ahead for the Alaska Federation of Natives. AFN leaders have announced plans for Julie Kitka to step aside as president before this fall’s convention.

Next month, AFN will open up the application process, the first step in choosing the next person to lead state’s largest Native organization.

In an announcement, AFN leaders said it was Kitka’s choice to leave this role.

Kitka was elected president in 1990, but her service to AFN goes back four decades. From healthcare to fulfilling the goals of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Kitka has had a hand in almost every one of AFN’s major achievements.

Paul Ongtooguk, an Alaska Native Historian, says Kitka’s long tenure has enabled her to shepherd AFN through historic issues, which have had a huge impact on Alaska Native peoples. The downside, he says, is that it’s always tough for a legacy leader to decide when it’s the best time to leave.

“No one lands on that squarely that I’ve ever seen,” Ongooguk said. “There’s an enormous amount of appreciation that needs to be given for all the time and enormous effort that she’s put in, year after year.”

Ongootuk says presided during a time of great change, and AFN has benefited greatly from her thoughtful leadership.

Kitka first joined AFN in 1984 as a special assistant for human resources. She has also served as AFN’s Washington D.C. lobbyist and vice-president.

AFN’s board of directors has created a succession committee and hired The Foraker Group to help with the search and transition. Foraker is an organization that helps non-profits grow and adapt to change.

AFN is also asking its members to fill out a questionnaire to help choose a new president.

Ongtooguk says the survey is a good idea and that it’s especially important for the younger generation to weigh in. But more important, he says, is for today’s AFN leaders to listen carefully to what they say — that young people may offer ideas they aren’t capable of even imagining.

Ongtooguk says the new leader of AFN must deal with a changing demographic, in which AFN membership will be dominated by urban natives, as rural Natives opt for city life and become less connected to subsistence and the Native way of life.

He says the new president will face different challenges than Kitka, as well as different opportunities.

“The way people think about that role and what it could be and should be for the future. It really does need to take a fresh bend in the river,” Ongtooguk said.

The plan is to have the new president in place by October to lead the 2024 AFN Convention, the largest gathering of its kind in the state.

Kitka says she has no comment at this time but will not leave the picture completely. She says she plans to take up a new role at AFN, to be announced sometime in the near future.

AFN’s Co-Chair, Joe Nelson said in a statement that it’s difficult to imagine an AFN without Julie Kitka at the helm, but AFN leaders are committed to a healthy transition.

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