A SENSE OF RIGHTNESS,
Anchorage Daily News, Page A1, Sunday, October 17, 1999
By Sheila Toomey, Daily News Reporter
[Alaskool note: Anchorage Daily News articles used with permission of the publisher, for educational purposes only.]
Employees at the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Anchorage office stood among their desks and file cabinets to meet the big boss, U.S. Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus. It was 1977, and Andrus was a major celebrity here. His department was in charge of implementing the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
Julie Kitka waited her turn. "I can still visualize standing in line," she said.
A 23-year-old clerk raised in Washington state, she had left college and come back to Alaska, where she was born, searching for direction.
When Andrus got to Kitka, he asked what she planned to do with her life. "I want to be a grant writer," she replied, "to get federal grants to help Natives."
"Oh, I wouldn't do that," Andrus said. "There's no future in that. The federal budget is going down."
He should know, Kitka thought. "So I changed my goal."
Now 46 years old and celebrating her 10th anniversary as president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, Kitka laughs out loud at the transformative power of a random event.
"I'm sure he had no idea what effect he had."
Instead of pursuing a career writing program proposals, she got a degree in business administration from Alaska Pacific University and took a job in 1981 as a bookkeeper with the AFN.
Eight years later she had risen through the ranks to president. She is the longest-serving president in the organization's history, having survived, even flourished, in the dicey world of Native politics. Though she doggedly avoids the spotlight and speaks darkly of the media's focus on "personalities," she is the Alaska Native leader most likely to show up on television or in the newspaper speaking on behalf of the state's 103,000 indigenous people.
As president of the state's largest Native organization, Kitka juggles a 38-person board of directors, runs point for a bouquet of indigenous cultures on tricky issues like subsistence hunting and fishing rights or oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and has enough confidence in herself and her causes to have once scolded Sen. Ted Stevens in public. As any lobbyist will confirm, it takes a brave person to do that.
Just keeping the AFN board intact is a formidable challenge. Members come from all over the state and represent often conflicting political, economic and traditional perspectives. Open ANWR's coastal plain to oil drilling? Yes, say North Slope Inupiat; No, say the Interior Gwich'in. Endorse the re-election of Alaska's longtime congressman, Don Young, or support a Native challenger, state Sen. Georgiana Lincoln? The AFN was deeply split.
Periodically, AFN members from a particular region will grumble publicly and resign from the organization for a while, though defections have slowed in recent years and, so far, those who left have all come back.
Activation of the Association of CEOs and Presidents of ANCSA Regional Corporations and the maturing of both the profit-making and nonprofit entities created by ANCSA have removed many divisive issues from the table at AFN, said Byron Mallott, executive director of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. and former president of Sealaska Corp.
"Regional corporations have a larger capability now to deal with their issues in addition to just through AFN," Mallott said. Now AFN can focus its "unique strength" on "issues of collective need and aspiration."
Still, it's not exactly peace in the valley when Kitka's board hunkers down to reach a consensus.
"If the Native community could agree, we would have conquered the world," joked Rep. Al Kookesh, D-Angoon and AFN co-chair. "But we're so busy fighting each other we don't have time to conquer anyone else."
"You can't go to business school and run AFN," Kookesh said. "That would never prepare you. No white person from Harvard could manage it."
Kitka disagrees that it's all that difficult. The role of AFN is to let everyone be heard and drive toward a consensus, she said. It's a collective job, and holding one person out as more important than another just because her title is president undermines unity. The goal is to make sure Natives are sitting at the table any time decisions that affect them are being made. She views her job as a day-to-day contract.
"If people don't like what you're doing and want you to leave, you're out the door and don't feel bad. That's the only way you can do it with so many judgments and so many conflicts."
'MAKE THE WORLD BETTER'
Julie Johnson Kitka was born in Cordova, the second of five children, to a Chugach Eskimo father and a Kansas German mother. Her dad had been on his own since age 13 and was a fisherman when he went off to fight in places like Okinawa and Guam during World War II. He returned a sergeant with medals and a view of his future that extended beyond Alaska.
Kitka's mother, Eleanora Weikert, was the daughter of Midwest wheat farmers, a nurse looking for adventure when she and three girlfriends hopped a coal-fired steamer to Alaska in the late 1940s. Kitka's great-grandparents on her mother's side attended the same Kansas church as Wally Hickel's parents.
Weikert was working at the Cordova hospital when she met and married Fred Johnson. Through him, Kitka is related to the Kompkoff, Totemoff and Blasoff families in the Cordova area.
The Johnson children were raised Catholic, their mother's religion. Dad converted from Russian Orthodox. Though she is no longer Catholic, Kitka says, the religion left her with a belief that the purpose of life is "to do something to make the world better."
After the war, Fred Johnson worked for The Cordova Times and then started a printing company in Everett, Wash. Both parents valued learning, Kitka said. Before her mother died five years ago, the couple had traveled to 33 foreign countries, she said.
Kitka is married and amicably separated from Herman Kitka, Jr., son of a respected Sitka Tlingit chief. Her daughter, Sassa Alexandria Sophiia, attended Mt. Edgecumbe High School and spent a year in Japan as an exchange student. She attends Stanford University.
Kitka has always been an athlete. For a long time it was softball. "Her nickname was "High Pockets,' " said Janie Leask, AFN president before Kitka. "She could just belt the hell out of a ball."
These days it's marathon walking. She does three or four miles daily on her treadmill, 10 miles when she's training. When the special subsistence session ended in Juneau last month, she took off with a couple of nieces for a marathon in Portland, Ore.
She likes carpentry and does her own home renovations. "She is more well-known at Spenard Builders Supply than at Nordstrom," her official biography claims.
Ask people who don't know Kitka well to describe her, and watch out for crashing adjectives. Somehow she is both mellow and intense, shy and self-confident, distant and nice, stern and compassionate. She has a reputation outside her inner circle as standoffish, an image that friends say is not true but one that isn't helped by her habit of not returning phone calls. It's a failing Kitka acknowledges but dismisses as unimportant. "They have to understand that sometimes I get 40 calls a day."
She is certainly reserved about her personal life. A board member who has known her for years didn't know if she had a college degree or what her maiden name was.
The key to the varying views of Kitka is her silence. She is quiet, a disconcerting trait in the world of politics, where the schmoozing never stops. "Sometimes a lot of people open their mouth before they get things together," said her brother, John Johnson, chairman of the Chugach Heritage Foundation.
"She'll just be quiet, absorb it, react to it later."
"I think she feels a sense of rightness about what she is doing," said Arliss Sturgulewski, a friend.
"If she gets it in her mind that she wants to do something, when she knows she's right about something, she will tell anyone, and she will tell them in very explicit terms," said John Shively, commissioner of Natural Resources, who has known Kitka since the 1970s, when he coached an AFN softball team. Kitka was his long-ball hitter.
"You recognized an innate intelligence, with a fair amount of self-confidence, even then," Shively said. "To me she was someone who was going to go somewhere."
Johnson laughs at the suggestion that his sister is shy.
She's not shy, he said. She's "controlled."
Though Kitka's style prompts judgments like "aloof," her earnestness and absence of visible malice keep the opposition guessing. Even people who might be expected to speak ill of her talk about wanting to know her better.
Rep. Scott Ogan, R-Palmer, an opponent during the special legislative session last month, called her "very cool headed, very calculated in her efforts and strategies."
He lamented that Kitka never came by for a face-to-face meeting despite several requests from him. Jawing with politicians whose vote you want is the sine qua non of lobbying. "I just wish with Julie Kitka that we could sit down as neighbors and friends and design a solution that we could live with," Ogan said.
Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell, another rural preference foe, harbors a similar hope.
"I firmly believe that I could sit Rick Halford and Robin Taylor down at a table with Julie Kitka and Byron Mallott, and we could solve subsistence in about 15 minutes," Taylor said. "The difficult thing for me is we've never really had the opportunity to sit down socially or in a conversational setting, dinner or anything like that. We've always ended up in what one might probably call emotionally charged contacts."
Despite the intensity of the conflict, which led to the state's losing control of subsistence regulation to the federal government across most of the state, the legislators seem loath to blame Kitka personally. She gets her hard-line marching orders from the AFN board, which is unwilling to budge, Taylor said. She is "professional and very nice," he said, but "Julie never had a choice as far as the position taken by AFN."
To view Kitka as just a tool of her board is a mistake, Mallott said. "She is truly a leader. ... I think where some people would be dismissive of her is because she does not fit the mold of a typical Western leader. You very rarely hear Julie making a major speech. Julie is usually sitting at the back of the room. ... She is able to be quiet in many public settings because she prepares everyone else very, very well. She does her homework. She does the staff work. The agendas are finished to a T. ... She is very much a presence, (but) she's not the kind of person who is sucking energy out of things."
"There are very few people that I think consciously about not wanting to piss off," Mallott said, "but she is very much one of them."
A week after the special session clunked to a close, over a cup of coffee at Cafe del Mundo, Kitka seemed astonished by the legislative sentiments. Do they really think she's been AFN president for 10 years and doesn't help formulate positions, propose policy and suggest strategies? Do they really think some chat over dinner is going to change what Alaska Natives believe is right?
"Why should the Native community give up something they already have in federal law to help the state regain management?" she said. "We would rather have a legal structure in the state constitution that reflects the importance of subsistence and our way of life. But we're going to be fine."
Kitka has a list of 101 things she wants to do before she dies. The list includes walking 1,000 marathon miles in one year and attending the International Peony Festival in China. She doesn't garden, she just grows peonies. About 900 of the flowers blossomed in her yard this summer, she said.
The list doesn't include a plan for the rest of her career. She earns $70,000 a year now, Kookesh said. She said she has no idea how long she will remain with AFN and claims not to know what she wants to do next. Shively figures she can do just about anything: go into private business, go to a Native corporate or tribal job, or go to Washington, D.C., if she wants. Kitka lived there for a year in the late 1980s, working on the 1991 amendments to ANCSA with Stevens and Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye.
"In D.C. people who don't know her well think she's a lawyer," Leask said.
Kookesh hopes she sticks around. "I think her strength is that she has vision," he said. "Anybody can stand on the soapbox and make pretty speeches. Julie is one of those people who have the vision to determine future courses of action. ... Her strength is to be able to work with people like myself and get a consensus. Then when she gets a consensus, boy, you can't stop her."
Shively agrees. "She was the only player I ever coached that hit the ball out of the park."
Rep. Al Kookesh, D-Angoon and AFN co-chair for four years:
"You can't go to business school and run AFN. That would never prepare you. No white person from Harvard could manage it."
"I think her strength is that she has vision. Anybody can stand on the soap box and make pretty speeches. Julie is one of those people who have the vision to determine future courses of action. . . . Her strength is to be able to work with people like myself and get a consensus. Then when she gets a consensus, boy, you can't stop her."
John Shively, commissioner of Natural Resources:
"If she gets it in her mind that she wants to do something, when she knows she's right, she will tell anyone and she will tell them in very explicit terms."
Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell:
"I firmly believe that I could sit Rick Halford and Robin Taylor down at a table with Julie Kitka and Byron Mallott and we could solve subsistence in about 15 minutes. The difficult thing for me is we've never really had the opportunity to sit down socially or in a conversational setting . . . We've always ended up in what one might probably call emotionally charged contacts."
Rep. Scott Ogan:
"I just wish, with Julie Kitka, that we could sit down as neighbors and friends and design a solution that we could live with."
Janie Leask, the AFN president before Kitka:
"In D.C. people who don't know her well think she's a lawyer."
Reporter Sheila Toomey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Heeding A Remark By The Interior Secretary 22 Years Ago, Julie Kitka Refocused Her Ambition Toward Business Administration. Now, As President Of The Alaska Federation Of Natives, She Is Often The Spokeswoman For The State's 103,000 Indigenous People."It's a sad day but our battle is not over yet," Alaska Federation of Natives president Julie Kitka said after the Legislature declined to put a constitutional amendment on subsistence before the voters late last month in Juneau. Shown behind Kitka is Rep. Al Kookesh, D-Angoon.AFN president Julie Kitka talks with Rep. Red Boucher in Juneau in May 1990. Kitka was in the Capitol to lobby for a rural-preference subsistence bill.