For Indigenous Alaskans, congressional election brings flood of emotions, online and off

Laureli Ivanoff at home in Unalakleet. (Zoe Grueskin/KNOM)

Laureli Ivanoff, a writer in Unalakleet, anxiously scrolled through Twitter on Wednesday, waiting to see if voters had elected the first Alaska Native person to Congress. The news-breaking tweet struck her surprisingly deep.

“It was just simple, like ‘Mary Peltola. Next U.S. congresswoman.’ And I screamed,” she said. 

She let the news sink in a minute.

“Then these tears came out,” she said, “and I was not expecting that.”

Peltola, 49, is Yup’ik and a former legislator. She grew up in Bethel and smaller communities on the Kuskokwim Delta. When she learned she’d won the seat to fill the remainder of the late Rep. Don Young’s term, she said that Alaska is a diverse state and she planned to represent everyone.

“I’m much more than my ethnicity,” she said, while also saying she’s proud to be the first Alaska Native person elected to Congress.

woman at helm of boat
Mary Peltola has been fishing on the Kuskokwim since she was a child. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Ivanoff is Inupiaq and doesn’t know Peltola personally. But it hit home, she said, that she’s never had a representative in Washington who holds Native values and a Native perspective. 

“A friend of mine celebrated with the king crab dinner in Nome,” she said. “People we’re lighting up their maqii, their steamhouses and saunas, to celebrate and just enjoy the day, right?”

Megan Onders said the election left her feeling optimistic and hopeful.

“It’s a hope for the opportunity to build an Alaska that, you know, we all live in and dream about,” said Onders, who is from Nome and lives in Anchorage.

To Onders, the election feels like a bit of atonement for the historical harm done to Native people and the racism they still face. The relocations, like that of her family from King Island, the suppression of Native cultures and languages — much of it was done by the federal government. Now a Native person will be in Congress making federal law. Onders said it’s something all Alaskans can feel proud of.

“It’s really a tremendous day for American democracy,” Onders said. “I believe that Representative-elect Peltola will share her strength, the strength of our ancestors, with Congress.”

Anchorage engineer Dave Ket’acik Nicolai is Yup’ik, his family is from Kwethluk, where Peltola spent her early years and where her mom is from. Like Ivanoff, Nicolai said the upwelling of emotion he felt surprised him. Part of his joy was telling his young daughters that, at least until January, they’ll have a representative in D.C. who is like them.

“My third-grader understands a little bit. She looked at me and her face beamed up and she got a big smile on her face. And she said, ‘Really?’” he recalled. “And so that was very special to me, too.”

For Ivanoff in Unalakleet, the emotional high continued, even days later.

“It’s just a beautiful thing. It’s been a beautiful few days,” she said, her voice breaking. “I keep trying to keep from crying.”

The term Peltola won expires in January. To stay in office, she has to win another election in November. She’ll be on the ballot with Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, and Libertarian Chris Bye.

Find other elections coverage and voter resources at alaskapublic.org/elections.

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Remember: You have until Oct. 9 to register to vote or to update your voter registration. Find out how here.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.