In the calm before the storm, U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, Yup’ik, embraced her colleague U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, on the House floor. Peltola was wearing her white mukluks with deep brown fur for her swearing-in ceremony on Tuesday night.
Last month, on her 49th birthday, Peltola, a Democrat, won the special election to finish out the late Don Young's term, which ends in January. Her victory meant Peltola bested a field of candidates that included Republican Sarah Palin, who was seeking a political comeback in the state where she once served as governor.
Peltola looked up to find her family and friends in the gallery. She gestured toward them and both lawmakers waved. A dozen or so people waved back at Peltola and Davids. Her husband, seven children and a few of her grandchildren were in attendance.
“I’m starting to cry," said Naomi Miguel, staff director for the House subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States. "When I started here in Congress there was no one that looked like us and it was so nice to see Deb and Sharice break those barriers for us and then to see this today for Alaska Native women. It’s been such an honor and I’m so happy to enjoy it with my staff who are also Native women from throughout the country. I’m just so excited to know that we’re breaking these barriers.”
Soon the House was in session and Peltola took a seat at the front of the chamber. She placed both hands on her lap and smiled as staff announced that it was certified that she was elected to represent the Alaska-At-Large seat in the House of Representatives.
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The official swearing in ceremony was the first order of business. Peltola stood in the middle between Reps. Pat Ryan and Joe Sempolinski of New York, who were also sworn-in. She raised her right hand and stood tall with a slight smile and stared back at Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Pelosi asked the three new representatives: “Do you solemnly swear or affirm that you will support or defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. That you will bear true faith and allegiance to the same. That you take this oath, this obligation, freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion and that you will faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which you are bound to enter, so help you God?”
With a simple, “I do” Peltola joined the 117th Congress. The crowd erupted in applause and the entire gallery stood.
Not only is Peltola the first Alaska Native elected to Congress but the first woman to represent the state of Alaska in the House. She previously was a state lawmaker for 10 years representing the rural hub community of Bethel, Alaska.
“I intend to work my very hardest to walk in Don’s footsteps and carry on his legacy to the best of my ability, to work for all Alaskans and I just really appreciate this opportunity,” Peltola said during the ceremonial swearing-in. “Thank you for sharing this moment with me.”
Young held his seat for nearly five decades. He was the longest serving representative.
Peltola hugged her children and kissed her husband before she was whisked away from the ceremonial swearing-in held in the Rayburn Room in the U.S. Capitol to cast her first vote.
“She can’t miss the vote,” staffers said repeatedly.
Peltola's campaign has emphasized her dedication to "fish, family and freedom." Fish are a staple in Alaskan life, and salmon holds particular cultural significance to Alaska Natives. A subsistence lifestyle — relying on fish, wildlife and berries — is essential in rural Alaska, including in many Native communities, where goods must be flown or barged in and costs for basic necessities can be exorbitant.
“Fish are life,” Peltola said in her first speech as a member of Congress.
Peltola said she sees her few weeks in office as an homage to Young's service as a more moderate force in an increasingly polarized Congress. Like the often gruff Young, Peltola said she is bringing a sense of humor to the job, along with a history of being a consensus-builder with even the most conservative of colleagues.
Peltola repeatedly mentioned that she would work with people from both sides to do what is best for Alaskans.
But staying above the fray could prove difficult. Peltola is on the ballot in November to serve a full two-year term, facing off against Palin again as well as Republican Nick Begich and Libertarian Chris Bye, all of whom advanced from August’s open primary.
That's partly why Peltola said she doesn't plan to get too comfortable in her new office, which Young, a Republican, adorned with the heads of bucks and bears and large rifles in a nod to his love of hunting. Now those walls are bare.
"It didn't make sense to really become too entrenched, or decorate, or set up shop," Peltola said. "I really just feel like I'm camping here until the term is over. And then being open and seeing what happens next."
“It has taken 233 years for the U.S. Congress to be fully represented by this country’s indigenous peoples. Tonight, a Native American, a Native Alaskan & a Native Hawaiian are sitting members of the people’s House. Welcome U.S. Representative Peltola to the 117th Congress!” Rep. Kaiali‘i Kahele, Native Hawaiian, said.
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