The Alaska Federation of Natives closed its annual convention on Saturday with a tribute to U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, who returned to Alaska to speak at the annual convention a little more than a month after her husband, Eugene “Buzzy” Peltola Jr., died in a plane crash.
Peltola, the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress, paused to lower her head and cry before launching into her speech. It was mostly business, but included funny personal asides about the “Alaska-splaining” required to help D.C. folks understand life in the nation’s only Arctic state.
“It’s so emotional being back at AFN,” she said, after a large crowd of Alaska Native people showered her with a long standing ovation.
Peltola also returned to Congress this week after a grieving period. Like U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, who spoke at AFN a day earlier, Peltola listed steps the Alaska delegation is taking to improve life in rural Alaska, including bringing more than $2 billion to the state to boost broadband access in remote villages and another $200 million to enhance the state’s electrical grid.
Peltola discussed the challenges of adjusting to the heat in the nation’s capital. Meanwhile, the Alaska Native staple of Pilot Bread crackers is nowhere to be found, she said.
Peltola said that over the years, she’s learned the strong value of love from AFN’s gatherings. That support, which she felt from Alaskans statewide after Buzzy’s death, has been especially critical this year amid bitter debates in Congress, she said.
A Democrat who’s considered a moderate, Peltola said people with balanced views are especially important in Washington right now to help overcome gridlock in Congress.
“We can help people find common ground and get off high-center,” she said, adding that high-center, like a car stuck on a snowbank, is another word D.C. officials often don’t get.
This year’s convention centered on shortages of fish and game and concerns about rural subsistence. Peltola challenged Alaska Natives to get involved in political discussions and meetings to boost the numbers of all of Alaska fish, not just salmon, to replenish the oceans and rivers.
“We cannot be satisfied until our nets are full,” she said.
“I need you to keep organizing so we can be as strong and united as possible,” she said.
Peltola’s speech was punctuated with rounds of applause, occasional seal-call whoops, and standing ovations.
After she waved to the crowd and left the stage, the Alaska Federation of Natives honored Peltola with a slideshow on the big screens in the convention hall.
It featured photos of Peltola and Buzzy among family and friends, hunting and fishing in rural Alaska, enjoying meals of salmon and wild meat, or just clowning around. “Amazing Grace,” which played at Buzzy’s funeral, accompanied the images.
As the three-day convention entered its final minutes, dozens of residents from Northwest Alaska stood for one last tribute to Peltola.
They sang the soothing “Aariga” hymn, named for an Inupiaq word that generally expresses a positive sentiment.