Congresswoman-elect Mary Peltola doesn't mind being seen as the underdog
Salmon time! Indigenous Wire's exclusive interview with the first Alaska Native elected to U.S. Congress.
WASHINGTON — Congresswoman-elect Mary Peltola (D-AK), a Yup’ik citizen from western rural Alaska, became the first Alaska Native elected to U.S. Congress on August 31.
RELATED: Mary Peltola's very happy birthday
She’s soon scheduled to be officially sworn in to office by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sept. 13.
Life would be a whirlwind for any new member of Congress taking over for someone who had served for nearly 50 years (in this case, legendary former Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young who passed away at the age of 88 in March), but Peltola finds herself in an especially chaotic moment in time.
Immediately upon being elected in the special election to fill the remaining few months of Young’s term, she was forced to start fundraising all over again. Both of her wealthy recent Republican challengers, Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, are promising tough re-do campaigns against her in the fast-approaching, normally-scheduled midterm election for the seat.
The day after Peltola was elected, she announced that approximately $500k in new campaign donations had rolled in overnight, but she said she needed to double that in short order to remain competitive. All signs from national Democrats — many of whom were surprised by her defeat of Palin, in particular — are that they are ramping up contributions, and Peltola should easily meet her fundraising goals.
Whether the former statehouse legislator can come out ahead once again under Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system now that voters understand it better — having gone through a trial run this summer with Peltola and Palin and Begich as the guinea pigs — remains to be seen.
One thing is clear: Despite her victory and cash now pouring in, Peltola — a previous herring and salmon technician for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game — still very much personally feels like the underdog.
She explained her reasoning behind that feeling and how she’s already hit the ground running, both legislatively and via her mantra that salmon are the heart of Alaskan’s peoples — in a recent phone interview with Indigenous Wire from Anchorage.
Hi, Congresswoman-elect Peltola, chi miigwetch — a big thank you — for doing this interview. How are you feeling? Is the election afterglow still beaming brightly for you?
I still have moments of doing a happy dance. Yes!
But a lot of hard work ahead, right?
A lot of hard work ahead. And I just got off the phone with a future colleague, Rep. Jared Huffman [D] from California. I was actually a guest in his committee, testifying on the Magnuson–Stevens Act [the main law, first authorized in 1976, that governs marine fishery management in the U.S.]. He has a bill in the hopper to reauthorize Magnuson–Stevens, and so did the late Congressman Young. And last November, I had an opportunity to testify in a hearing on reauthorizing the Magnuson–Stevens Act. So we were having a work call already, talking about the potential of having a field hearing, and he was letting me know of the agreements that he and Congressman Young had made — actually literally two days before the congressman's passing. And so, yeah, we're hitting the ground running. There are very serious, pressing issues, and we don't have any time to waste.
I can imagine you might feel a bit overwhelmed. Happy dancing, but also overwhelmed dancing.
It's been interesting to see that many in the national mainstream media have seemed surprised that you beat former Gov. Palin, but in watching your race, it seemed clear — at least to some Alaska Natives in particular and people involved with the Alaska congressional delegation — that this was a real possibility for you. Did you feel like the underdog in your race, as you have sort of been portrayed nationally?
I do feel like the underdog. I'm not a millionaire. I come from a very humble background. I'm a very regular Alaskan. So not only was I disadvantaged in terms of not having personal wealth to contribute to a statewide campaign, but I also didn't have the same level of name recognition that either of the other candidates have. And so, yeah, I definitely felt like the underdog.
I ask you that also because sometimes people are surprised when Indigenous people accomplish great things, although you and I know that Indigenous people accomplish great things all the time, across a variety of fields. Maybe I take it a little too personally when people are surprised.
Yeah, Rob, I really appreciate where you're coming from, and I honestly have enjoyed being underestimated. I think it gives me an advantage.
You can sneak up and do some big things, which you've already shown. You already mentioned Congressman Young. As you know, he worked very closely with Republican Sens. Murkowski and Sullivan in your state. They have both congratulated you on your victory. How closely do you envision working with them? Do you see working on any legislative issues with them before November?
Well, I certainly hope so. And our delegation is very small. We are just a handful of states where we only have three in our congressional delegation. And Alaska is such an enormous state that, of course, I plan on working very, very closely and working in as much alignment as I possibly can with both of the Alaska senators.
A woman's right to choose played a big role in your winning platform. And Sen. Murkowski, as you know, across the aisle, is a pro-choice candidate. How much is a woman's right to choose a voting impetus for Alaskans?
I think people will be surprised to know that Alaskans are between 60% and 65% pro-choice. And that really aligns with Alaskans libertarian leanings. We're very covetous of our personal freedoms and our privacy, and that definitely extends into a woman's right to reproductive health. One of the reasons I am very interested in making sure that a woman has the right to her body autonomy is because of the history that we've seen among Alaska Natives and American Indian women — or Lower 48 Indian women who have, unbeknownst to them, been sterilized. We know that that is a part of our history, unfortunately, where women either have a baby or have healthcare provided and without their knowledge or consent, they've been sterilized. And nothing is more sacred than a family's ability to determine how and when they grow their family.
I've heard you bring that sterilization issue up before, where you’ve noted that the practice has historically been practiced on Indigenous communities. Are non-Native folks you speak with surprised about that? A lot of Native people have had that experience in their own families — so they know about it all too well — but has anyone been shocked when you've brought that up?
I think most people are surprised to find that out. And I think there is often even disbelief associated with it, but it is very common knowledge and personal knowledge, knowing firsthand the aunties that we have that only have one child or weren't able to have any children. And so there is a lot of surprise. This is not something that is easy to talk about. It's not pleasant. And I think a lot of us avoid these conversations. I don't like to talk about things that are divisive, but I do think it's very helpful for people to understand where I'm coming from on this very important issue.
It also connects back to female body autonomy. It's a direct connection there.
That's right. And family — family is so important to me — family is so important to many people, and this relates to family and how and when you choose to build your family.
Do you feel like being Alaska Native is a net positive in Alaska in terms of how the general electorate there thinks of its candidates, or can being Alaska Native raise suspicions about you in some circles?
Well, that's a very hard question, and I really try to make sure that people understand that I'm double — I'm both Alaska Native and American Caucasian. I am very, very much brought up in both of those environments and both of those cultures, and I think that it is very easy for those things to blend very well because there are universal values in both of those cultures and in all of our cultures. And so I just really try to emphasize the unifying themes, where we're all on the same page.
Before you go, I have to ask you about fishing. Are salmon going to continue to be a major focus for you — and please explain for our readers what they symbolize to you?
Like so many cultures who are coastal and riverine, our generic word for food is the same word as our generic word for fish. Fish and food, they are the same thing. And food security is tied to our access to fish and chief among them are salmon. I'm made of salmon, most people in Alaska are made of salmon. So that will always be a very top of mind issue for me.
November's coming quickly. How feverishly are you working on your campaign, all over again?
It's a dual. We're definitely multitasking. We're very committed to standing up our congressional office to fulfill the remainder of Congressman Young's term. And we are not losing sight of this November 8th election.
I appreciate your time, and I hope we can chat again in the future.
Thank you, Rob. Thank you so much. And please, yeah, I love talking with all the Natives.
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