A ‘good day to be Yup’ik’: Alaska Natives celebrate Peltola’s win in U.S. House special election

House candidates, Mary Peltola, Sarah Palin, Nick Begich, Alaska Oil and Gas, candidate forum, AOGA conference

As a young teenager growing up in Bethel, Nikki Corbett got her first paid gig from Mary Peltola.

“I babysat her oldest,” said Corbett, who took care of Peltola’s eldest son.

Corbett, who lives on the Kenai Peninsula and is raising children of her own now, was one of the many Indigenous Alaskans from around the state who flooded social media with exuberant messages, reflections and recollections in the hours after Peltola’s apparent victory in Alaska’s special U.S. House election was announced Wednesday.

With her win, Peltola — who is Yup’ik and calls Bethel home — is the first Alaska Native elected to Congress. She will serve out the last four months of the late Rep. Don Young’s term.

“I feel like it’s just going to open so many doors for rural Alaskans and Alaska Natives,” Corbett said. “Especially for those of us who grew up on the Kuskokwim and at fish camp and anaq’ing in honey buckets, that is just amazing because we have come so far, and it’s incredible.”

Corbett said her pride came not just from Peltola’s victory, but the way the Democrat campaigned: remaining positive, friendly, embodying Yup’ik cultural values.

“We’re humble, and we’re kind, and we’re caring. Tearing other people down is not part of our culture,” Corbett said. “I feel like it’s really put us Yup’iks on the map. It’s a really good day to be Yup’ik.”

But the enthusiasm was hardly confined to the southwest river systems where Peltola grew up and which she represented in the state Legislature for a decade, at one point chairing the Alaska House’s Bush Caucus.

“My mom and I had happy tears,” said Megan Suksraq Onders, an Anchorage resident with ties to King Island and the Bering Strait region. She was eating at a Nome restaurant during a visit home when election results were announced. “It was totally dead. We had a spontaneous eruption at our table with the waitstaff.”

Onders began texting with friends and relatives, inviting them over for a party and king crab legs to her house.

“It was so beautiful. We had our Native friends and family from across generations — it just makes me want to cry — just gathered, with so much hope and beauty and togetherness,” Onders said, choking up.

The victory is buoying political enthusiasm heading into the November midterm elections, according to Onders, who in the past has worked on an array of political issues and campaigns spanning Republican, Democrat and independent alignments. Peltola’s success is especially affirming, she said, amid far-right efforts to discredit election systems and in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate federal abortion protections in a ruling earlier this summer.

“This is on the ballot in November, and I think you’ll see women take this seriously,” Onders said. “The energy is there to make sure people get out the vote in November. It will be a voter campaign where we’ve got to get the Native vote out.”

[Video: What Mary Peltola had to say after results showed she won Alaska’s U.S. House election]

It remains to be seen if the coalition of supporters and ranked choice voting patterns that produced Peltola’s decisive lead will be replicated in November, when Alaskans head back to the polls to determine who will serve as the state’s sole U.S. representative for the full two-year term that begins in January. Some cheering her victory are wary it could lead to a backlash or complacency.

“I’m always nervous, whenever there’s something that leans towards equity … sometimes you have blowback. Every time something moves forward, there’s more racism on the tail end of it,” said X’unei Lance Twitchell, a professor and researcher of Tlingit language and culture who lives in Juneau. “My hope is we can look at this as step one. We cannot forget step two.”

Twitchell said there’s excitement and a sense of relief that there’s finally an Alaska Native set to hold federal elected office. But even amid such a historic moment, he was frustrated that so much ensuing attention from out-of-state news outlets framed their coverage as a loss for Republican former Gov. Sarah Palin instead of Peltola’s unlikely victory.

“In the early reports, everything was about Palin,” Twitchell said, noting that by the following day the emphasis had begun shifting. “It’s good to see the national media catch on to what the story is.”

Even for those pleased to see a Democrat win a statewide race for the first time in more than a decade, Indigenous representation at such a high level brings a significance that will outlast the election cycle.

David Ket’acik Nicolai grew up on the road system but spent plenty of formative time with family in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, and believes Peltola’s firsthand knowledge of everything from exorbitant rural fuel costs to the economic centrality of salmon will be carried to the nation’s capital.

“Someone who has lived out there and understands all that is taking that same mindset to Washington, D.C., to represent us at the national level. That makes me feel really seen,” Nicolai said Thursday. “It never really rang home to me until Mary’s win yesterday.”

Nicolai said it was a special moment Wednesday when he could tell his daughter there would be a representative in Congress who looks like her.

“It was just really heart-warming,” he said.

[Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Onders invited people over to her home after election results were announced, not to her sister’s home.]

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Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers the military, dog mushing, politics, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. Prior to joining the ADN he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.