Former senator, longtime Alaska Native leader Albert Kookesh dies

Albert Kookesh discusses regional issues in his legislative office in 2012, when he was a state senator. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/Coastalaska)
Albert Kookesh in his legislative office in 2012 when he was a state senator. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/Coastalaska)

Longtime Alaska Native leader Albert Kookesh has died, his family announced Friday.

Kookesh was a legendary figure in Southeast Alaska, starting as a star basketball player at Mount Edgecumbe High School.

He served in the Alaska state Senate and House, and he chaired the Alaska Federation of Natives and Sealaska Corporation, the Native corporation for his region. He was also an advisor to former governors Bill Walker and Tony Knowles.

Kookesh was 72 and died in his hometown of Angoon, surrounded by loved ones, his family said. He had been suffering from prostate cancer.

Kookesh represented Angoon in the Alaska House of Representatives from 1997-2004 before moving over to the Alaska Senate for another seven years from 2005-2012.

Kookesh’s senate territory was a huge, mostly rural district that covered Metlakatla to the Bering Sea. His district was branded “The Iceworm District” for its resemblance to the long, skinny relative of the common earthworm that lives in glacial ice.

The district was split during redistricting in 2012 when Southeast Alaska lost its third senator to population growth in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Kookesh and his colleague, Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman, were forced into a showdown that year that neither really wanted.

“Albert and myself had several conversations well before the election campaigning even started,” Stedman said. “And one of the things we wanted to make sure didn’t happen was that no matter who was selected as a senator in Southeast, that we didn’t have a divisive election and a divided senate district.”

Stedman won the seat and Kookesh ended his legislative career — but his influence didn’t end. Sen. Stedman says former Sen. Kookesh remained a prominent voice in Southeast issues.

“When he was out of the Senate, we’d have conversations about policy issues also because he grew up in Southeast and knew the country very, very well,” Stedman said.

Kookesh was a 1967 graduate of Mt. Edgecumbe High School and a gold medal basketball player. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Alaska Methodist University in 1971 and a doctorate in law from the University of Washington in 1976.

Kookesh never practiced law — a fact he was always quick to point out to reporters. He was a legislator, he would say, not a lawyer.

Kookesh divided his time between his legislative duties and service on the boards of both Sealaska and the village corporation for Angoon, Kootznoowoo, Inc.

The Alaska House Majority Coalition issued a statement recognizing the extraordinary legacy of Kookesh.

“Albert was a lifelong advocate for his people, a force in Alaska politics, and a legendary Alaska Native leader,” wrote former speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon. “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.”

KCAW - Sitka

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