Alaska Natives fete their 1st Congress member, Mary Peltola

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress, received a hero’s welcome Thursday when the Democrat gave the keynote address at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Anchorage.

Those attending the largest annual gathering of Natives in Alaska showered her with standing ovations, spontaneous songs and gifts, including a bolo tie worn by her Republican predecessor, the late Don Young.

Young’s daughter Joni Nelson presented the tie to Peltola, saying it was a passing of the mantle to her. The surprise presentation came after Young’s adult children joined Peltola on stage as she paid tribute to Young, who held Alaska’s sole seat in the House for 49 years until his death in March.

Peltola defeated Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich in an August special election to finish out Young’s term. Those three, along with Libertarian Chris Bye, are competing for a full two-year term in the November election.

Another of Young’s daughters, Dawn Vallely, later said on stage that her father would have been happy with the results of the special election, won by Peltola.

Nelson wore the white beaded tie — which features the state of Alaska in blue beads — onstage but removed it to place it around Peltola’s neck when she greeted the family.

“Oh, my gosh, this means the world to me,” Peltola told The Associated Press about receiving Young’s signature bolo tie.


“I ran on continuing the legacy of Don,” she said. “I really think that we would not be the state that we are without his leadership and the service that he provided for 49 years, and I want to keep that going.”

Another emotional moment came when a group of delegates to the convention spontaneously broke into song for her. When they finished, another group began singing, followed by a third group in the cavernous downtown Anchorage convention center.

Peltola, who is Yup’ik, said the songs were significant because they contained “all their prayers, and their songs of strength, faith, love, hope, unity and wisdom.”

In lighter moments, several delegates to the convention posed for selfies with Peltola.

Associated Press reporter Becky Bohrer in Juneau contributed to this report.

Mark Thiessen, Associated Press

Mark Thiessen is a reporter for the Associated Press based in Anchorage.