BETHEL — When U.S. Rep.-elect Mary Peltola stepped off a plane at the Bethel airport on Wednesday evening, she was home. Family members and friends gathered in the one-room terminal to greet her, carrying handmade signs and wide smiles that mirrored hers.
Outside, a steely sky and yellow birch trees marked a new season. Inside, Peltola, 49, embraced people who had known her as sister, fisherman and friend before she became politician, salmon advocate — and now, the first Alaska Native elected to Congress.
“It’s just really nice to share the win where I call home, with the people I grew up with,” Peltola said.
Peltola, who is Yup’ik and grew up in Western Alaska villages, has long called Bethel home. She is set to make history as not only the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress, but also the first woman to hold Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat, when she is sworn in Tuesday. For people who have known her since she was a child, it’s a victory they describe as restorative, iconic and inspirational.
Peltola represented the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in the Alaska Legislature for a decade, a region dotted with dozens of communities. But since announcing her U.S. House campaign in April, after the death of longtime Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, she has only spent a few days here. She’s been traveling the state campaigning, returning most days to sleep in Anchorage, where her husband Gene “Buzzy” Peltola Jr. owns a home.
The moment of celebration was overlaid with sadness all too familiar. Four moose hunters from the community had been missing for days. Search and rescue efforts were ongoing. Between campaign calls, the duties of setting up a new congressional office and catching up with family, Peltola made time during her 40-hour stay to visit friends whose loved ones were missing.
“Even under the conditions, even though there is sadness, it’s a relief to be home with people to share in their sadness. There’s comfort in that, too,” she said. “We’re accustomed to grief. We all learn young the protocols for mourning and consoling people and how to pitch in, and when families are going through grief, we all rally around them.”
At the airport, she gave hugs to all who came to greet her. Among them were her sister, Margaret Fitka, and community activist Beverly Hoffman, who enthusiastically corralled supporters into a photo.
“We’re just so excited. It just means so much, not only just to this region, but to people who have known Mary. She’s our best, best person to be in Washington,” said Hoffman.
Peltola won the seat in a special election that was called after Young died in March, following 49 years in office. Peltola’s mother campaigned for Young when she was pregnant; Peltola was born six months after Young was elected. Peltola’s father worked with Young as a teacher in Fort Yukon and later as a pilot flying him around the state.
Now, she is about to occupy the cavernous office previously assigned to Young. But just for four months. Peltola, a Democrat, is up for reelection in November, in a race that will determine who will hold the seat for the full two-year term that begins in January.
The November election is a rematch with her Republican rivals from the special election, former Gov. Sarah Palin and businessman Nick Begich III, along with Libertarian Chris Bye.
Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system paved Peltola’s path to victory. She received 40% of first-choice votes and enough second-place votes from last-place finisher Begich to overtake Palin. In many parts of the state, Peltola is now working to win over support from independents and Republicans to increase her chances of winning in November, reminding voters that she is a hunter, that she has 176 guns in her home, that she values freedom, that like so many other Alaskans, she has a libertarian streak.
In this corner of the state, where nearly 85% of residents are Alaska Native, it isn’t a question of whether Peltola will win the local vote; it’s by how much. In Bethel, she captured around 70% of first-place votes. In Kwethluk, the Kuskokwim River village where her mother is from and where she spent part of her childhood, she captured over 93%.
Peltola is careful not to overstate the significance of the history-making aspects of her victory, but her friends and neighbors are more direct about what her election means.
“She’s Native like us,” said Rosalie Kalistook, who lives in Bethel, wiping away tears. “It shows how much people want our people over there. We had Don Young for many many years. It’s good to have somebody that’s known him, worked with him.”
“We are proud of a Native person representing us,” Kalistook added.
That pride extends to Alaska Natives across the state, and across the political spectrum. Before arriving in Bethel, Peltola was at the Anchorage airport one day when she asked to speak with Rose Dunleavy, who is married to Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy and works for an airline there. Dunleavy is Inupiaq from the Kobuk River Valley village of Noorvik, in Northwest Alaska. Peltola said she invited her to the swearing-in ceremony in Washington.
“We hugged, and she was crying, and then she stepped back and said, ‘I’m a Republican, I shouldn’t be doing this!’” Peltola said. Nonetheless, Rose Dunleavy accepted the invitation.
The day after she arrived in Bethel, a room full of community elders, family members and friends gathered to mark Peltola’s victory. When she entered the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center, cheers erupted. Peltola spent several minutes moving from table to table.
Father Michael Trefon led a Russian Orthodox blessing of the food, and then prayed for Peltola’s success in Washington. As the dozens of attendees filled their plates with watermelon, cookies and chips, Peltola hovered around the room, hugging, asking about local businesses or community matters, saying “quyana,” thank you, again and again.
Nicholai Joekay met Peltola in 2002, when he was a senior in high school interning in her legislative office, and later worked on her re-election campaign. He said they flew together to villages in the district, more vast than many states and largely roadless.
“It was a cool thing for me to see, to have that opportunity to have grown up in this part of the Delta and then see different parts of the Delta thanks to Mary’s campaign,” Joekay said. Since then, the two — who belong to the same church — have remained in contact. And Joekay, who now works for the University of Alaska, says he hopes her victory will inspire others in the community to participate in the political process.
“I think about my daughter and how she could go turn on the TV and see someone who looks like her and who sounds like her. She could aspire to do good things that Mary has done,” Joekay said. “Seeing someone who is at that level of leadership in the country, for the country — it seemed so far out of reach.”
“It makes Washington, D.C., feel that much closer, and it makes it feel like our voices can be heard, because representation matters,” he said.
Ana Hoffman, president and chief executive of the Bethel Native Corp. and a former classmate of Peltola’s at the Bethel high school, called the victory “restorative.”
“She’s going to bring that sense of connectedness, and that’s why I say it’s going to be restorative to our democracy. We really have more in common than not. And I think that’s what it does for Bethel too, with the state of Alaska. Our existence, our presence out here, is valuable for the state. Our remoteness is something that we should treasure and work to secure,” said Hoffman, who is also co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives. “It adds so much to the fullness of the state of Alaska.”
‘Kwethluk is in the House’
Alice Ayapan boated down to Bethel on Thursday with her husband from Kwethluk, a village of around 800 people.
“For us to know that she’s representing us, it’s like — hallelujah,” Ayapan said, lifting her hands into the air.
Peltola’s mother is from Kwethluk and her father is from Nebraska. He came to Alaska to teach, as did former Rep. Young. In a community where Yup’ik is the first language for many, Peltola has said her command of both languages has been an asset; she switched comfortably between Yup’ik and English in her conversations with Ayapan and others throughout the evening.
“Even though she’s Native like us, she’s not going to represent only us Natives. I really believe in my heart she’s going to represent the whole state,” Ayapan said. “It’s going to be everybody.”
Hoffman says that Peltola’s victory has the potential to elevate the region even as it reminds voters of what Alaskans have in common.
“In Alaska, the urban centers feel like that’s where you need to be from, or that’s where the action is. Mary has shown the state that that’s not true,” Hoffman said. “Bethel and rural Alaska adds to the character of Alaska. It’s the unique balance of living that we have out here in rural Alaska, and I think Mary’s message has been a message of harmony.”
When the election results came out, Hoffman was with her husband, Stosh, at their cabin in the Upper Kuskokwim village of Takotna, where they’d gone moose hunting. The only cell coverage was on a mountain nearby. They were up there on a call with their son when they heard the news.
“It was really special to share that moment with other people, as remote as we were, and feel the exhilaration that Mary has brought to the state, and not only to the state but to Native Americans across the country,” Hoffman said.
The Alaska Federation of Natives is set to host a reception in Peltola’s honor near the U.S. Capitol after her swearing-in. With her childhood friend set to make history, Hoffman cut short another moose hunting trip, a sacrifice not taken lightly.
“I kind of can’t believe it,” said Peltola.
“Me neither,” responded Hoffman.
As the event wound down Thursday, Ayapan and her husband prepared to return to their village before dark. Hoffman had noted their trip. “Kwethluk is in the house,” she said to them. Then it dawned on her, as she motioned to Peltola: “Kwethluk is in the House!”
‘A mental note’
As people began drifting out of the gathering Thursday, a member of the ongoing search efforts for the missing hunters told Peltola the effort had been slowed by trouble locating the missing boat they had used, presumed to have sunk in the river. The search and rescue workers were missing an expensive piece of sonar equipment that could penetrate the silty waters of the Kuskokwim to indicate the location of the vessel.
Perry Barr, a former state trooper, spoke with Peltola for a few minutes, updating her on the search effort and his decision not to run for reelection to the Bethel city council, on which Peltola had also previously served.
“I hope Congress won’t be like that,” Barr said. “The drama!”
“It’s not ever going to be as hard as Bethel city council,” said Peltola.
Peltola hasn’t yet announced an official staff or any specific agenda for her few weeks in Washington, D.C., before returning to Alaska to campaign. But Barr didn’t forget he was now speaking to a person on the verge of being sworn in to the U.S. House.
“It’s day nine and we’re wondering — why can’t we find the damn boat?” Barr said, describing the search for the missing hunters. “A lot of it is because we don’t have the right sonar equipment. We can’t get through the silt. So, when you’re in Congress...” he trailed off.
“Believe me, I’ve made a mental note,” Peltola said.
‘Like having a newborn’
The day after the community gathering, Peltola was in her Bethel home, a place she says has always been a hub of activity for her children. She has seven — two grown sons in the Coast Guard, two in high school and three stepchildren with her husband. She is also a grandmother of two.
She said the congressional run was something of an empty nest project that began after her two youngest kids decided to attend high school outside of Bethel beginning this year.
“I just thought — what am I going to do in this huge house with no kids?” she said. Windows overlook the town; the walls are covered with family photos and Alaska Native art, the plants cared for lately by house sitters.
The election has changed everything. Winning the seat, she said, is “a lot like having a newborn: a lot of unsolicited advice, a lot of congratulations, and almost no sleep.”
The journey from Bethel to D.C. — as the crow flies, 3,750 miles — began Friday with a flight from Bethel to Anchorage. Then Peltola flew Saturday across the country to the nation’s capital for an orientation, where she would learn how to cast votes and settle in for a brief stay in the city. Congress will be in session for only a few weeks before recessing for the entire month of October ahead of the November election.
Before the new term begins in January, Peltola will occupy the choice office once held by Young — who was known for filling it with Alaskana, animal busts and hides. Peltola’s taste in artwork is different. Her living room is decorated with Yup’ik dance fans made of delicate feathers and beads, and dolls made of fish bones and seal intestines.
“The reason I have all of these is because when I travel to villages, I like to try to contribute to their economy. Handicrafts is one of the big economic engines,” she said. In one community she visited while working for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game early in her career, she bought a basket for $400 from a woman who “was so relieved because then she could fix a hole in her floor,” Peltola said.
None of these items are coming with her, for now. She is packing light, knowing that even if she is re-elected in November, she will be relegated to a smaller office based on seniority.
Peltola arrived at this moment from a wide-reaching field of 48 candidates, winning the first election held under the state’s new voting system, amid unlikely circumstances that included a candidate dropping out and a court challenge.
Now, Peltola is trying to repeat her victory in November even as she heads to Congress, with the weight of an entire community resting on her shoulders.
“The gravity of this, the enormity of this, it was not expected, it was not planned,” she said. “It was like a perfect storm. Nobody can control a perfect storm.”
Among the worries of setting up a congressional office — with the duties of preparing for votes, hiring a staff and seeking committee assignments — come others as well: “Am I going to have enough time to touch base with my family? Am I going to be able to maintain my real friendships?”
On Tuesday, she will be sworn in to Congress and minutes later have to rush to the House floor to begin casting votes. The footwear that will carry her there? A pair of mukluks created by a friend, already laid out in her Bethel home to make the journey.