Ben Mallott, vice president of external affairs for the Alaska Federation of Natives, is scheduled to become the organization’s next president on Oct. 1. (Courtesy/Alaska Federation of Natives)
Ben Mallott, vice president of external affairs for the Alaska Federation of Natives, is scheduled to become the organization’s next president on Oct. 1. (Courtesy/Alaska Federation of Natives)

Ben Mallott, the son of former Juneau mayor and Alaska lieutenant governor Byron Mallott, will become the new president of the Alaska Federation of Natives on Oct. 1, the organization announced Friday.

The younger Mallott, who is also stepping into a role his late father previously served at AFN, will succeed Julie Kitka who is stepping down from the presidential position she was elected to in 1990. Mallott, 40, has spent 11 years at AFN, which as the largest statewide Native organization represents about 140,000 Alaskans, and hundreds of Native corporations and federally recognized tribes.

Mallott, currently AFN’s vice president of external affairs, also has served as a legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and is a member of the boards for Baan O Yeel Kon Corporation, Northern Taiga Ventures Inc., The Nature Conservancy Alaska, the Alaska Humanities Forum, and the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

“I am absolutely excited, also terrified, but I’m really a lot more excited,” he said in an interview Saturday. “I’m kind of a (legislative) nerd. I love working in Congress, loved working for Murkowski. I like public policy. I like taking all these different issues and working on them, and connecting communities, connecting policy issues, and driving them forward.”

AFN is immersed in a multitude of issues at the tribal, state and federal levels — some involving longstanding issues such as subsistence, others involving new matters such as sovereignty rights arising in lawsuits and litigation. The organization is also contending with the departure of some Alaska Native entities as members in recent years including the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, who departed last year along with the Tanana Chiefs Conference.

Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, president of Tlingit and Haida, said last year AFN played a critical role for the tribe during the 1980s through the early 2000s, but in recent years Tlingit and Haida has expanded to the point the tribe can adequately advocate for itself by itself. Also, Peterson noted, the $65,000-$70,000 annual AFN membership fee the tribe was paying could be reallocated to fund other priorities.

Mallott, when asked what might be different at AFN with him as president compared to Kitka, said he expects to continue the organization’s current direction.

“I can’t say enough about Julie’s leadership, dedication, (and) mentorship to me and the organization over the years,” he said. “So obviously you’re going to continue building on her strong platform, making sure that our communities are always at the table in terms of all levels of government.”

The first issue Mallott named as a priority is subsistence, which the Tanana Chiefs Conference stated a lack of action on was a key reason for its departure from AFN. Communities relying on subsistence are facing critical shortages of some species such as salmon, along with ongoing battles about rights and preferential access to those resources.

“The salmon crash in the Yukon–Kuskokwim river is a major concern, but also ensuring that we have a management structure that recognizes our communities and also how important subsistence is to who we are as Native peoples,” he said.

A policy victory for AFN occurred this week when the U.S. Department of the Interior announced the federal Office of Subsistence Management will be relocated as of July 15 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the direct management of the Interior secretary, who is currently Deb Haaland, Mallott said.

“That’s been supported by AFN for a long time, so that’s a really good direction,” he said.

At the state level the Alaska Board of Fisheries “is having a traditional knowledge opportunity and sharing at the beginning of each meeting, and AFN helped push that through,” Mallott said. He said AFN will also watch closely for any subsistence-related legislation introduced during the coming legislative session.

Intergovernmental relations with state and federal leaders are likely to continue being a challenge for AFN with Mallott as president.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, while signing in 2022 what some observers called a symbolic bill giving state recognition to Alaska’s 229 federally recognized Native tribes, also has taken various actions seen as adversarial. Among the latter is an ongoing lawsuit challenging a “land into trust” agreement Tlingit and Haida reached with the federal government last year that would give the tribe sovereign powers within the land involved.

A federal judge in Anchorage ruled this week the federal government can take land into trust on behalf of Alaska Native tribes — a potentially major sovereignty rights decision — but nullified the Tlingit and Haida pact, citing procedural flaws that can be remedied. Both sides in the lawsuit said they intend to pursue the legal dispute further due to unresolved issues.

The issues in that lawsuit also may be an indicator of AFN’s federal government relationships following this fall’s presidential election, since Democratic administrations have generally been more favorable toward policy goals such as Native land trusts and subsistence rights, while Republican administrations have challenged them. A closely divided U.S. House where Republicans cling to a razor-thin majority could also affect the direction of future policies.

Mallott said AFN’s approach toward state and federal administrations will remain the same regardless of who is in charge of them.

“We’ve worked among many administrations,” Mallott said. “We try to build relationships and partners so that our communities and our organizations are always at the table. And with any change in Congress or change in administrations we’re always continuing to take those relationships and ensure that our voices are heard.”

AFN’s membership includes 177 federally recognized tribes, 154 village corporations, nine regional corporations, and nine regional nonprofit and tribal consortiums, according to a press release issued by the organization Friday. The organization is governed by a 38-member board.

“Mallott will begin assuming his new role in August to allow an overlap with Kitka through October,” the release states. “Kitka will be the keynote speaker at AFN’s annual convention that will be held in Anchorage October 17-19, an occasion that will celebrate her outstanding legacy.”

Mallott, a graduate of Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé who now lives in Anchorage, has significant family roots in the state’s political and business infrastructure. In addition to his father’s decades as a tribal, political and business leader, his brother Anthony Mallott was the president of Sealaska Corp. until he stepped down in January.

During his interview Saturday, Ben Mallott said he was on his way to Rampart, a village in the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area that still lacks cell phone service and running water. He said the visit was due to some new infrastructure being built such as a new tank farm generator and water/sewer installations, made possible through work with Murkowski’s office.

“We’re going to kind of look at some of that progress being made, so it’s actually pretty cool to see happening already,” he said.