WASHINGTON — Mary Peltola was sworn in Tuesday to the U.S. House, becoming the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress and the first woman to hold Alaska’s lone seat in the House of Representatives.
On Tuesday afternoon, she lined up with two other special election winners from New York. They raised their right hands and took the oath of office from Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
In her first speech on the House floor, Peltola said she is humbled to be the first Alaska Native elected to Congress, “but to be clear, I am here to represent all Alaskans.”
“It is the honor of my life to represent Alaska, a place my elders and ancestors have called home for thousands of years,” said Peltola, who is Yup’ik.
A reception following the swearing-in hosted by the Alaska Federation of Natives near the Capitol drew hundreds from Alaska and Washington, D.C., including an emotional Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Alaska Native leaders from across the state.
In their words of congratulations for Peltola, they emphasized the historic nature of the day as Peltola became the first Alaska Native in Congress — and almost certainly the first person to speak Yup’ik on the House floor — and also one determined to continue the legacy of her Republican predecessor and make friends on both sides of the political aisle.
Introducing her on the House floor following her swearing-in, Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland called Young “a giant” and said Peltola was “cut from the same cloth.”
“The people of Alaska lost a representative who has served them with great ability, energy, courage and commitment for half a century,” said Hoyer, adding that Peltola, like Young, is “someone who believes fundamentally in pragmatism, independence and putting Alaska’s unique needs first.”
Peltola laid out her priorities in Congress: lowering the cost of living, investing in child care, growing the economy, ensuring Alaska remains “a global leader” in resource development and protecting Alaska fisheries.
Before speaking on the House floor, she embraced Democrat Sharice Davids of Kansas, one of the first Native American women elected to the U.S. House. After she was done speaking, she immediately embraced Murkowski, a Republican, who stood behind her along with Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and several other U.S. House members.
Her swearing-in was followed by a ceremony presided over by Pelosi, D-California. In the ceremonial swearing-in, her husband Gene “Buzzy” Peltola Jr. held the Bible, as Peltola was flanked by her seven children, two grandchildren and two sisters.
Peltola’s youngest daughter, Nora, later said she was proud of her mother as she watched her make history. She also loved the excuse to get together with all of her siblings, who flew in from across the country, for the first time since 2019. None of them had been to Washington, D.C., before.
Peltola wore a walrus tusk ivory necklace given to her by her husband and ivory earrings from her mother. Peltola, her daughters, sisters and granddaughters wore mukluks made in Bethel, where she’s from.
Immediately after the ceremony, Peltola cast her first votes on three non-controversial bills. Peltola voted in favor of all three, which passed with bipartisan support.
Peltola will serve only for the four remaining months of Young’s term. She is also running in the November election that determines who will hold the House seat for the full two-year term that begins in January. She faces two Republicans, former Gov. Sarah Palin and businessman Nick Begich, and Libertarian Chris Bye.
Peltola arrived in Washington on Sunday after a trip to Bethel, her hometown. On Monday she received her official congressional pin and the keys to Young’s old office — one of the biggest in the House — that she will inhabit for the next four months. She also named five members of her staff, including Alex Ortiz, Young’s former chief of staff.
A former state lawmaker who represented the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in the state House for a decade ending in 2009, Peltola previously chaired the state Bush Caucus that brings together lawmakers representing communities off the road system. More recently she was the director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission working on subsistence fishery issues and food security in the region. She has made fish policy and her support of abortion access hallmarks of her congressional campaign, which she launched in April, two weeks after her predecessor’s death.
Peltola requested to join the House Natural Resources and Transportation and Infrastructure Committees — the two committees Young chaired. Formal committee assignments have not been announced by her office.
‘In her own mukluks’
At the reception following the swearing-in ceremony, Interior Secretary Haaland, on the verge of tears, spoke for several minutes to the crowd of hundreds, many of whom had flown from Alaska.
“I know firsthand what representation means. What it means to people, what it means to the person who’s doing the representing, what it means to our country, quite frankly. Because nobody knows a Native community like somebody who’s from that community,” she said.
Haaland praised Peltola’s “pro-fish” campaign message, which has drawn attention from some D.C. politicians intrigued by the significance of fish to Alaskans.
“I think that’s a House speech for the ages, because everyone in this room probably understands that it’s not just fish. It’s subsistence, it’s history, it’s culture, it’s tradition, it’s family, it’s everything that the Alaska Native people stand for. And I just want you to know how genuinely happy I am for every single one of you,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion, drawing applause.
“Like many Indigenous people, when I was younger, it didn’t even occur to me that Indigenous women could grace the halls of Congress,” Haaland said. “Breaking glass ceilings … it’s not for the faint of heart.”
“Every single Native woman in this country wants Congresswoman Peltola to succeed. And she can absolutely rely on me for that as well,” Haaland said.
Haaland thanked Murkowski for “being front and center” when Peltola was sworn in. Murkowski, who is running for re-election this year to the U.S. Senate, has drawn criticism from hardline Alaska Republicans for her support of Haaland.
Murkowski called it “a happy day for our country.” Her enthusiasm toward Peltola’s swearing-in transcended the party line that divides them. Sullivan, the other Republican representing Alaska in the U.S. Senate, did not appear at the reception.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am as an Alaskan woman to have stood with Mary as she delivered her first speech, her maiden speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives as the congresswoman for all Alaska,” Murkowski said, referencing Young’s campaign slogan: the congressman for all Alaska.
“We are so so so privileged that somebody from the beginnings that Mary has, has seen that there is a path for her, that she can deliver to the people and the place that she loves, in a way with sincerity and honesty,” Murkowski said. “Congresswoman Peltola — isn’t that lovely to say? — she might not use as colorful words and vocabulary as our dear beloved former Congressman Don Young. But she is every inch a feisty fighter and is going to be there for her people and her state that she loves.”
Pelosi made an appearance at the reception, saying the swearing-in “was so glorious because when she was recognized and took the oath, the first person who ran up to her was one of the first Native American women to serve in Congress.”
That was Rep. Davids, who was also at the reception, briefly serving as the unofficial photographer for Peltola, taking pictures of her as hundreds of attendees swarmed to exchange a few words and commemorate the evening in a photograph.
Davids and Haaland were the first Native American women in Congress.
“When Deb and I got elected, I remember a couple of the things that we talked about: one of them was that we’re the first two Native women in Congress, but we definitely are not going to be the last,” Davids said.
When Peltola walked into the reception room at 8:45 p.m., after casting her first House votes, the room erupted in cheers. Peltola remained at the celebration until past 10 p.m.
“Overwhelming is, I think, an understatement. It’s great to celebrate with Alaskans being so far from home and having so many people to celebrate with me, and getting sworn in tonight was the highlight of my life,” Peltola said. “I really feel Don here, and I feel like this was meaningful for us to also be celebrating Don.”
Liz Medicine Crow, Tlingit and Haida from the village of Kake and the president of the First Alaskans Institute, said she is excited to watch Peltola not just “stand in Don Young’s shoes — because that’s his legacy — but to stand in her own mukluks, and make it happen.”
Alaska Federation of Natives co-chair Joe Nelson said that Peltola’s swearing-in had brought Alaska Native communities together.
“The awesome thing about the Alaska Native communities, we have 229 federally recognized tribes. And it’s moments like this when we’re all together. Mary has been representing all of us for the entirety of her career and this is just the next natural step, so we’re thrilled to be here,” said Nelson, who is Peltola’s ex-husband and the father of her two youngest children.
AFN’s other co-chair, Ana Hoffman, is a childhood friend and former schoolmate of Peltola’s in Bethel, who saw meaning in Peltola speaking Yup’ik on the House floor.
“It feels like Mary is bringing a completeness to the U.S. Congress that has been missing,” Hoffman said. “As she was speaking, the thought that kept coming into my mind is ‘the people’s house.’”
Nikki Pitre, who runs the Center for Native American Youth in Washington, D.C., brought her 5-year-old daughter Adela to the swearing-in.
“It’s such a proud moment for Indigenous people, to see someone who looks like us being in a position in the House of Representatives. I’m overwhelmed with emotion, overwhelmed with gratitude and incredibly proud to be Native,” Pitre said. “I brought my daughter, she’s only 5, to this because I recognize the power and visibility, of course, for someone to be sworn in who looks like her.”
‘Already work getting done’
Prior to being sworn in Tuesday, Peltola attended a bill signing ceremony at the White House for the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed Congress with all Republicans opposed, including Alaska’s two U.S. senators, Murkowski and Sullivan. At the ceremony, attended by many congressional Democrats, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, Peltola said she was able to meet some of her colleagues for the first time. She took selfies with a few of them, though she admitted she didn’t know who some of them were before they introduced themselves.
At a brief stop at a campaign event following the White House gathering, Peltola said she had experienced “the dripping sweat and the feeling of melting and the camaraderie.” The temperature on Tuesday on the White House south lawn exceeded 80 degrees under a blazing sun, unlike the cool and rainy weather she was accustomed to Alaska. “It felt a little bit like being in a steambath,” she said.
Also at the White House event was Tom Begich, the son of Democratic Congressman Nick Begich. The elder Begich was elected to Congress in 1970 and disappeared two years later in a plane crash that triggered the special election that Young won. Tom Begich was 10 when he attended his father’s swearing-in to the U.S. House; now 61, he returned to the House gallery for Peltola’s swearing-in.
“The chamber looked so big back then. It looked a lot smaller today,” said Begich, who is now the Democratic state Senate minority leader. “I remember being overwhelmed by the awesome enormity of the moment. And the funny thing was, even though the chamber looked smaller to me today, it was overwhelming.”
Tom Begich is also the uncle of Nick Begich III, who is running against Peltola in the November election, as a Republican.
When asked if she planned to sleep in Wednesday after a busy Tuesday, Peltola responded, “I don’t have that luxury.”
“Even though this was a day of celebration and celebrating with my family, there is already work getting done.”