Joe Kahken, a retired President & CEO of Goldbelt, Inc., speaks about his time with the Juneau-area Alaska Native corporation during an interview on Wednesday, August 1, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Joe Kahken, a retired President & CEO of Goldbelt, Inc., speaks about his time with the Juneau-area Alaska Native corporation during an interview on Wednesday, August 1, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

People of Juneau: Goldbelt’s first CEO reflects on lifetime of involvement

In semi-retirement, Joe Kahklen remains involved in Southeast Alaska issues

Today, Goldbelt Inc. is a booming Alaska Native corporation that owns lands throughout Southeast Alaska and has thrived in the realms of logging and tourism.

It wasn’t always that way, though. Joe Kahklen remembers.

Kahklen, one of the founding members and the corporation’s first CEO, looks back fondly on the difficult years in the 1970s when the corporation was in its infancy. They were often wrapped up in litigation, Kahklen said, as people at the time assumed that the corporation had tons of money. He laughed as they talked about how wrong those people were.

Kahklen, who turns 82 in September, said even he and his optimistic co-founders had their expectations lower than the heights the corporation has reached.

“It’s exceeded my wildest dreams,” Kahklen said. “We had these really way-out dreams we thought we’d never achieve.”

Goldbelt was incorporated in 1974 as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which formed Alaska Native organizations and allowed them to claim land throughout Alaska. ANCSA established regional corporations, such as Sealaska Corp., and urban organizations such as Goldbelt. Sealaska was incorporated two years before Goldbelt and helped Goldbelt get on its feet financially, Kahklen said.

[People of Juneau: Mary Lou Spartz talks about her fascination with Princess Sophia]

Kahklen had been involved in the Native community leading up to that point, and was chosen to be the chairman of the board as the corporation started up. He said his main task was raising money, which was a tall task. He expressed great gratitude to Sealaska for helping out in those early days.

Kahklen, a Tlingit from the dog salmon clan of the Raven moiety, has roots that extend throughout Southeast. His father was born in Kake and his mother was born in Klawock, and he has spent much of his life in Juneau. The family lived in Angoon, Haines, Klawock, Sitka and elsewhere because his father was a teacher for the federally run Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) school system and work took him to different communities.

He earned degrees in chemistry and biology at Northern Arizona University, and began work as a chemist in Phoenix. He eventually found his way back to Alaska, working for BIA before getting in on the ground level with Goldbelt.

Over the years, Kahklen served in a number of roles for Goldbelt, from CEO to chairman of the board. He traveled all over the country and world overseeing operations and working with other organizations. One trip to Japan in particular stood out to him. He said as he was walking down the street, he would see someone and immediately see physical similarities to Alaska Natives. Once he got to know people over there, he said the similarities only deepened.

“It was amazing on my first trip there, how similar their culture was to our culture from the perspective of elders, the extended family,” Kahklen said. “It was just amazing.”

Overall, he served on the board for a total of 35 years before he was replaced in the 2017 Goldbelt election. He said he wasn’t happy but understood that it’s time for leadership to be transferred to the younger generation. He won’t run for a spot on the board again, but is hoping to get involved with the local Goldbelt board in Kake.

“I’d like to make a contribution if they’ll have me,” Kahklen said. “If they won’t that’s fine. That’s my dad’s hometown. I’d like to go back.”

He’s also remained heavily involved with the Healing Hands Foundation, where he’s the chairman of the board. Healing Hands is a charitable organization that helps fund the Southeast Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC). He is also on the board of First Things First Alaska Foundation, which aims to promote economic opportunities and the reasonable use of natural resources in the region.

“I’m not sitting at home watching TV,” Kahklen said.

Kahklen’s efforts have not gone unnoticed, as the Juneau Chamber of Commerce honored Kahklen in 2017 with its Lifetime Achievement Award. He’s ready to stay out of the spotlight now, he said, after decades representing Goldbelt and the Alaska Native community.

“It’s been a good life,” Kahklen said. “I’ve enjoyed the journey. I’m just amazed at the things that have happened.”


• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or amccarthy@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.


More in News

This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. On Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, the top U.S. public health agency said that coronavirus can spread greater distances through the air than 6 feet, particularly in poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces. But agency officials continued to say such spread is uncommon, and current social distancing guidelines still make sense. (NIAID-RML via AP)
COVID at a glance for Thursday, Jan. 21

The most recent state and local numbers.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy addresses the public during a virtual town hall on Sept. 15, 2020 in Alaska. ( Courtesy Photo / Austin McDaniel, Office of the Governor)
Dunleavy pitches dividend change amid legislative splits

No clear direction has emerged from lawmakers.

Joar Leifseth Ulsom, right, wearing a bib with ExxonMobil lettering on it, congratulates Peter Kaiser on his win in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Nome, Alaska. The world’s most famous sled dog race has lost another major sponsor as the Iditarod prepares for a scaled-back version of this year’s race because of the pandemic, officials said Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. ExxonMobil confirmed to The Associated Press that the oil giant will drop its sponsorship of the race. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)
ExxonMobil becomes latest sponsor to sever Iditarod ties

The world’s most famous sled dog race has lost another major sponsor.

Has it always been a police car? (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Police calls for Friday, Jan. 22, 2021

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

This electron microscope image made available and color-enhanced by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Integrated Research Facility in Fort Detrick, Md., shows Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, orange, isolated from a patient.	(THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-NIAID/National Institutes of Health)
State reports 24 COVID-19 deaths

Only 1 of the deaths happened recently, according to the state.

This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. On Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, the top U.S. public health agency said that coronavirus can spread greater distances through the air than 6 feet, particularly in poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces. But agency officials continued to say such spread is uncommon, and current social distancing guidelines still make sense. (NIAID-RML via AP)
COVID at a glance for Wednesday, Jan. 20

The most recent state and local numbers.

Sarah Palmer talks to a driver before administering a COVID-19 test in December 2020. On Tuesday, the City and Borough of Juneau reported an uptick in cases identified over the weekend that included Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  However, the community's COVID risk level remains at the moderate level, which was set last week after months with the community risk level set at high. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
COVID-19 cases tick up over holiday weekend

Two CBJ employees among those testing positive

Marine veteran Marvin Kadake, right, of the Keex’ Kwaan Dancers (People of Kake) shakes hands with Ed Kunz during the Grand Entrance for Celebration 2018 along Willoughby Avenue on Wednesday, June 6, 2018. The 2020 version of the every-other-year event had been tentatively scheduled for this summer, but those plans have been canceled, organizers announced. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Celebration 2021 canceled, organizers announce

It’s the second pandemic-related scheduling change for the event.

Most Read