Ketchikan - Edward Thomas, who led the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska for the past 23 years, announced his resignation Thursday.
Bill Martin of Juneau, the council's first vice president, will take over until the end of Thomas' term, which was scheduled for April 2008.
Thomas' announcement came as a surprise to delegates at the group's annual general assembly in Wrangell. He made the announcement at the end of his state-of-the-tribe address on the second day of the four-day conference.
Thomas said his resignation would take effect immediately.
The Juneau-based Central Council is the tribal government representing about 26,000 Tlingit and Haida. The president's term is two years.
"You don't fill (those) shoes overnight. You do it over the course of a number of years," Saxman delegate Joe Williams said in a telephone interview.
The resignation was "totally unexpected" and very emotional for the 106 delegates at the meeting, according to Williams.
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However, he said that Thomas assured the group he wasn't sick or tired.
The announcement from the Central Council said Thomas wanted people to understand that his decision "was not made for any medical or political reason, but that it was time to move on to a new chapter in his life."
He wanted to spend more time with his family, the announcement said.
Thomas is a former commercial fisherman and educator who taught school in Klawock, was a high school counselor in Craig and also was executive director of Ketchikan Indian Corp.
He left his position as director of the Ketchikan School District's Indian Education Program, a post he had held since 1976, to take over the Central Council presidency when he was elected in 1984.
"I've attended national meetings, and when Ed Thomas walked into a room everyone knew he had entered the room," Williams said.
"I've been to national meetings when Ed wasn't there, and the question was, 'Where's Ed?' You know, they didn't say 'Ed Thomas,' they just said Ed."
Thomas could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.