The “Celebrating Our Unity” theme of this year’s Alaska Federation of Natives convention was emphasized by U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola in her keynote address Thursday, but perhaps the biggest symbol during the convention’s opening day came when the recently inaugurated Democrat was given the beaded Alaska flag bolo tie of her predecessor, Republican Don Young, by his elder daughter Joni Nelson.
“Now I’m a real congressman for all Alaska,” Peltola said upon receiving the tie, invoking the slogan Young used during his nearly 50 years in office.
Peltola, sworn into office less than 40 days ago to fill the remainder of Young’s term after his death and facing a reelection campaign in less than three weeks as she seeks a full term, is the first Alaska Native elected to Congress. She received a hero’s welcome from convention attendees who gave her a long standing ovation before she began her speech.
The AFN Convention claims to be “the largest representative annual gathering in the United States of Native peoples” and about 6,000 people are expected to participate in this year’s three-day gathering at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage. It is the first in-person convention in two years due to the COVID-pandemic and the unity theme is meant to honor people working together to address future challenges.
Peltola, in her speech, applied the theme to situations ranging from families to global conflict. Early on she called to the stage members of Young’s family, who are supporting her reelection campaign, as she talked about his lengthy career of accomplishments beginning as a freshman when he was vital to establishing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System which “built the foundation of Alaska’s economy as we know it.”
An exchange of hugs and the bolo tie followed. The younger of Young’s two daughters, Dawn Vallely, told the audience her father would have been happy with Peltola’s win in the special election.
Such personal and political unity among people from different political parties is something many Alaskans are long familiar with when confronting shared challenges ranging from extreme storms to food shortages, Peltola said. She said taking such an approach to her campaign and congressional duties, including hiring a large number of Young’s former staff, seems to be why the election is attracting global attention.
“One of the things that has really taken me aback by this whole process is the overwhelming interest that people from across the state, the nation and the world have had in this U.S. congressional race,” she said. “I find it amazing people are keeping such close tabs on this race.”
She added: “I didn’t understand the depth that across the nation and across the world we are suffering from a lack of unity.”
Peltola said the causes range from social media — including her own family of seven children who might be texting each other from different parts of their house — to people provoked into violent actions throughout the world.
“Each of those perpetrators is born out of a sense of extreme isolation,” she said.
The Bethel resident said such perils were avoided by the opportunities she and her children had growing up, such as values based education in her home community. One of her daughters also attended Harborview Elementary School in Juneau where she participated in the Tlingit language learning program.
“I happened to be at the school one day when they had two elders sitting before this group of elementary students,” Peltola said. “One of them was David Katzeek, who said the elders have been teachers for thousands of years and “he said to the elementary school kids ’you belong here, this building is for you,’ and he said to them over and over ’you are precious, you belong here.
“This is a message we’ve got to share with every Alaskan, every American, everyone in the world.”
That spirit will be vital in the near term future and beyond, since among other problems Alaska just canceled its snow crab season for the first time ever and “a lot of our resources aren’t coming back,” Peltola said. But she said some resources such as the caribou population can be revived through united efforts.
“It’s up to us to adapt and be resilient and work together,” Peltola said.
After her speech she was presented with a series of gifts — or, in the case of a whale carving by a Kotzebue craftsman with a value easily exceeds the $50 congressional gift limit, “a loan so we can see it every time we come to visit you.” Another package contained a Mason jar candle, a sealskin bracelet and bubble gum from a giver thinking perhaps she chews gum on her now frequent plane rides.
“These are real Yup’ik gifts here,” Peltola said cheerfully. “I love this. I’m glad I don’t have to report these to ethics.”
Before she could leave the stage a spontaneous song of prayer broke out among attendees from her region of the state who were sitting in their designated section of the audience. That was followed by hymns and blessings by two other regional groups of attendees.
“Peltola stood at the front of the stage, looking over the immense hall, her eyes brimming with tears,” wrote Liz Ruskin, a Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media who has shadowed the congresswoman during many of her most notable moments in office.
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com