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Nina Kravinsky
KYUK

Kwethluk elder John W. Andrew, Yup’ik, saw the news of Mary Peltola’s win in his email on the night of Aug. 31. Peltola is Yup’ik.

“It gave me indescribable joy,” Andrew said.

The 77-year-old is a citizen of The Organized Village of Kwethluk. The tribe, along with Bethel tribe Orutsararmiut Native Council, endorsed Peltola’s candidacy. Peltola’s mother is from Kwethluk and Peltola has lived both there and in Bethel. She received 93 percent of the votes in Andrew’s village.

“Some years ago, some Elder told me ‘our region is the last of the sleeping giants,’” Andrew said. “I think what that Elder meant was that our people in this region have a lot of potential.”

Andrew saw that potential in Peltola. He said that he texted her after hearing about the death of former Rep. Don Young in March. Andrew wanted Peltola to run for the open seat.

“I told her before that she could make it,” Andrew said. “That was her chance. I was kind of hoping it would be a reality. It finally happened."

(Previous: Alaska Native elected to Congress)

Andrew has worked with Peltola on subsistence fishing committees and said that he’s seen her bring large, diverse groups of people together to address issues. He’s happy to have someone who knows how much groceries and fuel cost in rural Alaska in Congress, and he hopes she’ll continue to work on food security issues.

“Coming from a small community, she has a lot of cultural values she practices, like, to share with all your relatives what was given to you from the wilderness,” Andrew said.

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Kevin Whitworth, Deg Hit’an Athabascan, is the executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, a subsistence fishing group representing the river’s 33 tribes. 

Whitworth stepped into the role after Peltola stepped down to campaign for Congress. She labeled herself “Pro-Fish,” and made protecting subsistence fishing access a major campaign plank. Whitworth hopes that Peltola will maintain that focus and place limits on bycatch in the federal trawling industry, as her campaign said that she would seek to do.

“It's just inspirational. Somebody from a rural community who grew up in a small village now has a position in Washington D.C., a very powerful position,” Whitworth said. “Always inspirational to see that somebody from a little town can make a difference.”

In addition to subsistence fishing, Bethel mayor Mark Springer hopes that Peltola will advocate for a list of issues that he sees improving life in rural Alaska, including expanding broadband in the region, ramping up climate research on the sub-Arctic, strengthening the area’s National Guard presence, and improving aviation safety.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome and more pleased with having her as our new U.S. Representative,” Springer said.

In an email, Association of Village Council Presidents CEO Vivian Korthuis, Yup’ik, called Peltola’s victory “a giant win for the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta.” She said that it sets a “great example for our youth on what is achievable.”

Thom Leonard, Yup’ik,a vice president at Calista Corporation, hopes that Peltola will advocate for tribal infrastructure funding for water treatment and broadband expansion. He hopes that her being from the area means issues like that will be top of mind for Peltola when she’s in Washington.

“Just the knowledge of knowing that we have a representative who knows how we feel, who knows how we think,” Leonard said. “I have so many incredible memories growing up in Bethel, being out on the river, getting fish, berries, everything like that. And she knows all of those different things. All of those aspects.”

Peltola will hold the Congressional seat for four months, and is on the November ballot to serve the next full two-year term.

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This article was first published in KYUK