FAIRBANKS — Two women have been elected co-chairs of the Alaska Federation of Natives board of directors for the first time in the organization’s history. The election of Tara Sweeney and Anna Hoffman is also a sign of changing times: Both women are so-called “afterborns,” meaning they were born after the 1971 passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
Tara Sweeney, of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, and Anna Hoffman, of Bethel Native Corporation, received the highest number of votes by far out of four candidates. One usual candidate was absent from Saturday’s election. Former Sen. Albert Kookesh served as a co-chair for 14 years. Kookesh said a heart attack earlier this year forced him to reconsider his obligations.
“I want to live to be well into my 80s and 90s and if I keep doing things like this I may not,” Kookesh said. “My choice is that I want to rest my body for a year and maybe I’ll come back.
Kookesh said he’d like to still be involved with AFN as a board member, but that vacating his co-chair seat might be the best chance to get younger people running the organization.
“People are always saying that there’s a younger generation coming up that wants to take it on,” Kokesh said. “Well, I’m giving them a chance now. I’m voluntarily stepping aside. For me, I want to go out on top rather than get kicked out later.”
The afterborn designation means a number of things in the Native community. Those born after 1971 may not receive shares in their regional or village corporation. They also weren’t around to fight for ANCSA and some of the more established Native leaders have been hesitant to give up leadership roles that were difficult to come by to begin with. For Tlingit-Haida Central Council President Ed Thomas, the election of Sweeney and Hoffman is promising.
“I know the history of their leadership in their own regions and their commitment to try and make AFN better,” Thomas said.
Thomas will be retiring from the Central Council in January, also for health reasons. He served as president for 23 years before first retiring in 2007. He returned in 2010. He said he has to have confidence there is someone in the community who will be a good replacement.
“I came back to try to help us build back up and I think my experience helped in that regard,” Thomas said. “I’m not afraid of problems.”
Thomas, who was one of the four co-chair candidates, said he is optimistic about the future of AFN.
“I hope that the new leadership will keep moving and going and we will keep working toward more unity and less divisiveness,” Thomas said. “I think we need to find common issues to rally around, like we used to in the old days.”
• Contact reporter Jennifer Canfield at 523-2279 or at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @canfieldjenn.