Many Alaska Natives say new Representative Peltola brings long-sought representation

By: - September 2, 2022 5:55 am
Mary Peltola, Democratic candidate for U.S. House, speaks at an event in Juneau on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Mary Peltola, Democratic candidate for U.S. House, speaks at an event in Juneau on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska Twitter lit up after Democratic candidate Mary Peltola won the special general election to fill the remainder of Don Young’s term as Alaska’s U.S. House Representative. Democrats and progressives were excited about Peltola representing Alaskans, and some Alaska Natives were also happy about her win due to a different kind of representation.  

Sharon Dayton from Kaltag said of “all the candidates that have come and gone, Mary’s the first one that I felt spoke directly to me.”

That’s what led her to tweet: “I have never felt excited about or supported a political candidate ever. Is this what representation feels like?”

For Dayton, representation means someone who understands what it’s like to live a rural life, “what it’s like to have to go fishing; it’s not just, ‘I should go fishing,’ or, ‘I feel like going fishing,’ but it’s part of who you are.” Peltola understands this, Dayton said.

Peltola, who’s Yup’ik, will be the first Alaska Native ever to serve in Congress. She grew up on the Kuskokwim River in Kwethluk, Tuntutuliak, Platinum, and Bethel, and started commercial fishing with her father when she was six. Peltola spent 10 years representing Bethel in the Alaska House of Representatives and helped rebuild the Bush caucus, a non-partisan coalition of lawmakers representing areas off the road system. 

Dayton is Koyukon Athabascan. The biggest issue for her is the lack of fish on the Yukon River.

“It’s something that I grew up dependent on, that it would always be there,” she said. “It also affects our whole ecological system, and we’re going to be facing harder times in the rural areas because of the lack of fish.”

Dayton said what the trawling industry is doing to Alaska directly impacts her, her kids, and her grandkids.

“And so Mary is the first person that’s addressed this and that spoke to me right there, and that’s the reason I voted for her. Someone who understands what it’s like to depend on the water and on the land to live,” she said. 

Anchorage resident David Ket’acik Nicolai said he’s heard people describe seeing their own representation, whether in media, movies, or government, but the idea had never landed with him. Until Wednesday.

He was watching the Alaska Division of Elections Facebook Live announcement with his wife and a big bowl of popcorn.

“After they hit the tabulate button or whatever it was, my wife and I were jumping up and down. We gave each other a kiss. We were cheering. Yeah, it was a good afternoon,” Nicolai said.

A half hour later, he tweeted: “It’s cliche but it’s a fellow Yup’ik who won. Someone like me. That means something to me.”

Nicolai said he and his wife, who’s white, are happy that their daughters “can also see that representation.”

“My 8-year-old Annabelle, when I told her that there’s somebody who’s just like us who’s going to represent us in Congress in Washington D.C. her face lit up and she got a big smile on her face and she said, ‘Really?’ So that was also pretty special, too,” Nicolai said.

He’s excited that Peltola can expand people’s worldviews in D.C.

“For the first Yup’ik person to be elected to a nationwide office, and to carry everything that she knows and has experienced, and help make nationwide decisions with that mindset – for that to be happening for the first time ever is pretty great,” he said.

Soldotna resident Nikki Corbett said she’s known Peltola her whole life. Corbett is originally from Bethel and grew up around Peltola and her family.

Peltola’s win is “amazing,” Corbett said, “because it’s somebody from our region, from the Kuskokwim, who grew up on the Kuskokwim fishing and being at fish camp and, you know, living the subsistence lifestyle, as well as being successful in her career.”

On Wednesday, Corbett tweeted: “This win for @MaryPeltola is a win for all of us who grew up in rural Alaska. Us fishcamp kids. Us kusko kids. The future just got that much brighter.”

Besides Peltola being someone who had the same upbringing and background, Corbett said Peltola’s campaign embodied Yup’ik values.

“She ran a very Yup’ik campaign and by Yup’ik campaign, I mean, as Yup’ik, we’re very humble, we’re kind, we don’t tear people down,” Corbett said. “Her approach with her campaign was so graceful and it was so nice to see that and a lot of those values are what we grew up with in our Yup’ik culture.”

Peltola’s win means a lot to Corbett – “As a Yup’ik, I feel recognized,” she said – and it means a lot to future generations.

“I feel like the future for my children and my grandchildren and for rural Alaska, for a lot of us who come from small communities – it just got so much brighter,” Corbett said. “I feel like she’s breaking down the walls for the future and I’m just excited for what’s to come for the next generations following Mary.”


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Lisa Phu
Lisa Phu

Lisa Phu covered justice, education, and culture for Alaska Beacon. Previously, she spent eight years as an award-winning journalist, reporting for the Juneau Empire, KTOO Public Media, KSTK, and Wrangell Sentinel. She's also been Public Information Officer for the City and Borough of Juneau, lead facilitator for StoryCorps Alaska based in Utqiagvik, and a teacher in Tanzania and Bhutan. Originally from New York, Lisa is a first generation Chinese American and a mom of two young daughters. She can be contacted at [email protected]