by Andrew Kitchenman, Alaska Beacon
September 13, 2022
Mary Peltola was sworn in on Tuesday as Alaska’s sole member of the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress.
Peltola, a Democrat from Bethel, praised her predecessor, Republican Rep. Don Young, who died in March, saying that, like Young, she would represent all Alaskans.
“Don Young was a true institution, an Alaska icon,” she said. “I’m committed to securing his legacy of bipartisanship.”
Peltola touched on her roots.
“It is the honor of my life to represent Alaska, a place my elders and ancestors have called home for thousands of years, where to this day, many people in my community carry on our traditions of hunting and fishing,” she said.
The event was celebrated by fellow House members and by members of Peltola’s family and other supporters sitting in the House gallery, with people rising a few times to applaud and cheer the historic occasion. Family members who attended the ceremony included her husband, Gene Peltola, seven children, two sisters and two grandchildren.
They were photographed with Peltola and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a ceremony after the official swearing-in.
There were a few things unique about the event. Most House members are joined on the floor by other members of their state’s House delegation – with Alaska having only one member, members from different states gathered around Peltola. And U.S. senators usually don’t attend many sessions of the other chamber, but both of Alaska’s senators – Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan – joined Peltola.
For more than 20 minutes before the ceremony, Peltola chatted with Murkowski and Sullivan, as well as House members who lined up to greet her. They included the three most senior House Democrats – Pelosi, from California; Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina – and Sharice Davids of Kansas, one of the two other Indigenous women in the House.
After Peltola was sworn in, Hoyer said it was an honor to welcome her. He credited her willingness to work with Republicans as contributing to Alaskans electing her.
“Like so many other Americans, they want to be represented by someone who is focused on bipartisanship and not on confrontation,” he said.
Alaska Federation of Natives Co-chairs Ana Hoffman and Joe Nelson attended the ceremony. Hoffman said afterward that the event was “spectacular.”
“Mary was very much in the place in which she belongs,” Hoffman said. “And she brought Alaska here in such a real way. One of the people from home said by Mary being in Washington, D.C., it makes D.C. feel that much closer to Alaska. And it absolutely does. That is a perfect way to describe what Mary has done here.”
Hoffman said hearing Peltola speak some Yup’ik on the House floor brought a sense of belonging to the chamber. Hoffman also said there were probably more people wearing piluguks, a style of mukluk, than has ever happened before during a member’s swearing-in.
Nelson compared having Indigenous-language words spoken in Congress to land acknowledgements.
“There’s no more powerful land acknowledgement than the Native people just speaking and being part of the land,” he said.
Newly sworn-in U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola introduces her family during the U.S. House floor session on Sept. 13, 2022, in the Capitol in Washington. D.C. Surrounding her from the left are U.S. Reps. Doris Matsui, D-California; Sharice Davids, D-Kansas; Brenda Lawrence, D-Michigan; and Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-New York; and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alasaka, was outside of the frame to the right. (C-SPAN screenshot)
The ceremony came a day after Peltola announced her staff members, who have a bipartisan background. Alex Ortiz, Young’s last chief of staff, will be her chief of staff. Claire Richardson, who worked in the administrations of Democrat Tony Knowles and independent Bill Walker, will be Peltola’s interim director of constituent services. Larry Persily, who has worked in various federal, state and municipal positions and a longtime journalist, is her senior policy adviser. Hector Jimenez will be her scheduler; his background includes serving as her deputy campaign manager and working in the oil and gas industry. And Josh Wilson, who has worked for Republican politicians, is her interim communications director.
Peltola’s term in office ends on Jan. 3, 2023. Whether she serves beyond then depends on the outcome of the Nov. 8 election for the next two-year House term, in which Peltola faces Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich and Libertarian Chris Bye in a ranked choice election.
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Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.