The first Alaska Native to represent the state in the U.S. Congress got a hero’s welcome on the opening day of the Alaska Federation for Natives convention, where she was greeted with standing ovations, given thunderous applause and hugs, showered with praise and gifts, celebrated with signs emblazoned with her image – and presented with one special token connecting her to her iconic predecessor.
Joni Nelson, the elder daughter of the late U.S. Rep. Don Young, draped around the neck of new U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola: the Alaska flag bolo tie worn by the 49-year congressman.
“Now I’m a real congressman for all Alaska,” said Peltola, echoing Young’s longtime campaign slogan.
Peltola, who is Yup’ik and from the Bethel region, won a special election in August to replace Young, who died in March. Though Peltola is a Democrat and Young was a Republican, their families were close and Peltola is pledging to carry on with Young’s legacy of bipartisan collaboration and accomplishment.
Young’s daughters proclaimed their own support of Peltola.
“I’m so proud of Mary Peltola,” said Young’s younger daughter, Dawn Vallely. “My dad would be very happy with the results of the special election.”
Much of Peltola’s speech was connected to the theme of this year’s AFN convention: “Celebrating Our Unity.”
Unity is fundamental to Native cultures, she said.
“It’s through this inherent understanding that we cannot get anywhere alone. It’s through sharing, and sharing on every level: sharing food, sharing love, sharing encouragement, sharing knowledge, generation to generation to generation. This sharing is just inherent, it’s intrinsic. It’s the pillar of our success and our survival,” she said.
(Related: Rep. Mary Peltola sworn into Congress)
Since her election, however, she has been taken aback by two things: the “overwhelming interest” across the nation in the Alaska congressional race, in which she is running again for the full two-year term to start in January, and the depths of disunion and division in the nation and the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic showed that division is the wrong direction, she said.
“This pandemic has shown us that we are pack animals: We need people. We need each other. We are not meant to be alone; we are not meant to be isolated; and the pandemic really proved that,” she said.
The dangers of that division and extreme isolation, she said, are evident in “violent outbursts of mass, mass destruction, mass killing,”
Despite those bad trends, Peltola said she felt optimism at the AFN convention, the first regular in-person annual gathering since 2019.
“I’m so uplifted in this moment, because I see the promise of tomorrow. I see it in our children and our grandchildren and all the generations that are going to come after us. And I’m uplifted in this moment because of you. After years of COVID and through economic and political storms, we’re together again celebrating our unity and I stand before you very humbled,” she said.
Others who praised Peltola included Ana Hoffman, longtime friend and fellow Yup’ik, as well as AFN’s co-chair.
Peltola’s claim to be a regular Alaskan does not do her justice, Hoffman said in her introductory remarks before the House member took the stage. She invoked the “courageous and adventurous life of an Alaska salmon.”
“Like the salmon, Mary has a most purposeful journey,” Hoffman said. “Last month, she didn’t just go to Washington, D.C. We, all of us here, the state of Alaska, we sent her to Washington, D.C.”
Peltola’s speech was the result of her status as a member of Congress, not her campaign. Her campaign-related appearance, focused on the November general election, will be on Saturday, when she is scheduled to debate her opponents, Republican and former Gov. Sarah Palin, Republican businessperson Nick Begich and Libertarian Chris Bye.
However, others who joined Peltola on the podium at the close of her keynote address Thursday conducted something of a mini-campaign rally.
State Sen. Lyman Hoffman, Alaska’s longest-serving state legislator and also Yup’ik from Bethel, said others in Congress are looking to Peltola as a “guiding light” to try to achieve some unity. For that to happen, he said, she must stay in office, he told the audience. “When you go back home, make sure on Election Day you make a call to someone, your friends, to show up at the polls. Show this nation, show this state, and show your community that we are here and we’re going to come out and vote. That’s what it’s all about. No. 1: Vote, and check off the one ballot for Congressman Mary Peltola.”
“We all need to stand up and support Mary to continue to represent our people,” added Willie Kasayulie, a longtime Native and education leader.
“Turn out at the polls, and let’s support Mary,” said Andrew Guy, president of the Calista Corp., the Bethel-based regional corporation owned by Yup’ik people of western Alaska.
At the close of Peltola’s speech, the Rev. Martin Nicolai, a clergyman from the village of Kwethluk, began leading an Orthodox song wishing Peltola longevity. That song was followed by others, including a piece called “Aarigaa” – a term of praise – that was sung by Inupiat delegates from Northwest Alaska.
This article was first published in the Alaska Beacon.