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What Mary Peltola’s win in Alaska may mean for Indian country

Rep.-elect Peltola joins the U.S. House of Representatives this week and is on the ballot again in November

- September 12, 2022

A special election to fill Alaska’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in late August produced a stunning outcome. When Mary Peltola begins her four-month term this week, she’ll be the first Alaska Native to serve and the first Alaskan Democrat in the House since 1972. Peltola will run again for this seat in November for a full term.

Of course, being descriptively Native does not guarantee that someone will substantively represent tribal interests. Research suggests that gender and Native identity are significant influences on Native women in politics. If Peltola’s previous actions are any indication, there is reason to believe her Native identity is a salient and present influence on her policy choices.

Peltola has deep cultural ties in Alaska

Peltola is a member of the Yup’ik people, an Inuit community who mostly live along the western coast of Alaska, which has one of the highest Native populations in the United States. Peltola’s background also gives her a unique perspective on one of the leading industries for Alaskans — fishing.

Peltola commercially fished with her father from an early age, working in the industry throughout her career. Peltola was even an Alaskan Salmon Fellow, charged with developing stronger connections among the many sectors with a stake in the future of Alaska’s salmon. Peltola describes herself as “adamantly Pro-Jobs, Pro-Fish, Pro-Family and Pro-Choice.

Being “pro-fish” is a bit more nuanced than one might expect. The Yup’ik have fished for salmon along the Kuskokwim River for centuries. But salmon runs have diminished greatly in recent years, prompting Alaskan officials to intervene to protect the species.

In 2012, several Yup’ik fishers were charged for continuing to fish after the state ordinance was in place. They appealed the charges, citing their religious right to the practice of fishing. The Yup’ik lost the appeal of their case, with the court stating that “the health of the diminished king salmon run outweighed the fishermen’s individual rights.”

In her role as executive director for the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Peltola advocated for regulation processes to include “Tribes and Traditional Knowledge in federal fishery management decisions.” This was a move to uphold Alaska Native cultural practices and acknowledge the impact of overfishing. Peltola has continued to make fish a central aspect of her campaign, bridging ecological concerns with those of Native fishing communities.

The cultural practice of fishing and preparing salmon is about more than just food for many communities in rural Alaska. Bernadette Demientieff, a member of the Gwich’in people, expressed optimism about Peltola’s win: “I feel a little bit of relief knowing that somebody will be down there that can really relate and understand what it is to be Alaskan, to be Alaska Native and to have that connection to our homeland.”

A Native American will be in charge of the Cabinet department that has shaped Native American lives

Peltola joins a growing Native caucus

The first Native women elected to Congress won their seats relatively recently — Deb Haaland (D-N.M., Laguna Pueblo) and Sharice Davids (D-Kan., Ho-Chunk) took office in 2019. Haaland then became the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary when she was sworn in as secretary of the Interior Department in 2021.

Peltola’s win adds one more voice to the historically small caucus of Native legislators in Congress. Including Peltola, six House members identify as Native — three Republicans and three Democrats.

And Peltola may not be alone. Lynnette Grey Bull, who is Northern Arapaho and Hunkpapa Lakota, won her Democratic primary last month in Wyoming. She will face off in November against Harriet Hageman, who defeated incumbent Liz Cheney. Democrat Charles Graham of the Lumbee Tribe won his primary and would be the first Native member of Congress from North Carolina. In Nevada, Democrat Mercedes Krause of the Oglala Lakota Nation will also advance to the general election.

Native American identity is a central focus for each of these candidates. For example, Grey Bull’s Twitter bio states she is “Indigenous to the core.” Her campaign site includes an Indigenous Policy Platform, in addition to her broader policy priorities.

Is representation for Native women on the rise?

Peltola may be part of a larger trend toward increased representation for Native women across U.S. legislatures. Of the 53 Native women who ran for state or congressional seats in 2020, 31 won their respective races. This tally includes Yvette Herrell (R-N.M., Cherokee) the first Native woman from the Republican Party to be elected to Congress.

These Native female lawmakers consistently signaled a commitment to support tribal communities. Between 2018 and 2021, Native female legislators at the state level filed appropriations requests directed at tribes and Native interests totaling more than $500 million.

These lawmakers also worked to “Indigenize” their respective houses of government. Haaland, for instance, wore a ribbon skirt to her swearing-in ceremony. Debra Lekanoff, who is Tlingit/Aleut, incorporated drums and traditional Salish Coast practices during her ceremony at the Washington state legislature.

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From boarding schools to termination policies, U.S. legislatures have historically been hostile toward Native language, dress, spiritual practice and, above all, the right to self-govern. By reclaiming the right to engage in culturally significant practices, Native female lawmakers are subverting those norms and paving the way for a growing caucus of Native voices.

What will Peltola prioritize?

Peltola also served on the Orutsararmiut Native Council Tribal Court, exposing her to a variety of common concerns for Alaska Native communities. Peltola served as the youth representative in the 1990s for the National Congress of American Indians, the largest interest group representing tribal concerns at the federal level.

In 1999, a state court found that Alaska’s system for funding school facilities violated the federal Civil Rights Act and racially discriminated against Alaska Natives. In response, Peltola sponsored multiple bills aimed at realizing adequate funding for schools serving Alaska Native communities. During her decade as a state legislator, Peltola also sponsored legislation to ensure that Alaska’s history curriculum included Native history and perspectives.

It remains to be seen what policies and priorities Peltola will support in Congress, but Native communities in Alaska and beyond will certainly be watching.

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Elise Blasingame (@enblasingame) is a PhD student at the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs, where she studies Native American politics and issues of representation. She is the author of “Holding Office in Native America: The Policy Choices of Native Women Legislators” in Distinct Identities II (Routledge, forthcoming).