Mary Peltola visits friends, family and supporters in Bethel ahead of her historic swearing-in

two people hug inside
Mary Peltola hugs a supporter at a potluck at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center on Sept. 9, days before she is to be sworn into Congress. (Gabby Salgado/KYUK)

Congresswoman-elect Mary Peltola is being sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday, but before heading to Washington D.C., Peltola returned to her hometown of Bethel.

She spent her short stay visiting with family, friends, and supporters, including at a community event at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center on Thursday, where her supporters gathered for a feast.

Dishes, pot-luck style, filled a long table. In front of it, the Bethel Russian Orthodox choir sang. Fr. Michael Trefon blessed the food before turning to Peltola and blessing her. She wiped away tears as the choir switched into a Yup’ik rendition of “God Grant You Many Years.”

The choir continued to sing as Peltola supporters lined up to load their plates with stuffed grape leaves, poke, watermelon, and chips with various dips. Moments before, Peltola had greeted nearly all of the dozens of supporters in the room one-on-one.

Many of those supporters know Peltola well, like Melanie Fredericks and her daughter MaeLynn, who are family friends of the soon-to-be congresswoman.

“I know and believe wholeheartedly that she’s going to work hard and do her best to represent our state,” Melanie said.

a woman stands among a happy crowd of supporters at a small airport
Congresswoman-elect Mary Peltola is greeted by a hometown crowd at the Alaska Airlines terminal in Bethel on Sept. 7, 2022. (Katie Basile)

Bethany Kaiser is also looking forward to Peltola representing the whole state. The paralegal is from Bethel, and she cried when she heard the election results.

“I think she really can relate to, not just Bethel, but rural Alaska in general,” Kaiser said. “I think she can really relate to coming from a small town and knowing the challenges that we all face out here.”

One of the challenges is infrastructure which, for Glennora Polky, means potholed roads.

“Always potholes,” Polky said. “But nobody can do anything about it because they always come back.”

She’s hoping Peltola can find resources in Washington to fix that.

Bertha Nagasiak hopes that Peltola being in Congress will bring better family and homeless services to Bethel. She’s hoping for more community spaces for families and support for people recovering from alcohol addiction.

“And I pray that she follows through on what she says and how she’s going to help the people of our community,” Nagasiak said.

Others said that they wanted her to address the low salmon runs in the region. That issue was a big part of Peltola’s campaign. She describes herself as “Pro-Fish” and wants to place stricter bycatch limits on trawling.

Bob Herron served in the state Legislature after Peltola and is a family friend. He thinks the same characteristics that got Peltola elected this time will work again in November, and that they mean that she will be be an effective lawmaker.

“She’ll work well with others. That’s just gonna be indicative of why she won. She’s a people person and she’ll do good,” Herron said.

Peltola told KYUK before the community event that she’s still working on the specifics, but she hopes to craft legislation that will benefit the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

“My perspective, my worldview is from this region,” Peltola said. “So I think it will be interwoven into every single thing that I do.”

Peltola had planned a more festive trip to Bethel, but she pared down the celebration. That was in deference to the two searches occurring for four missing hunters. She’s close friends with a family of the missing.

After her Bethel trip, Peltola headed to Washington D.C. where she’ll be sworn in to serve the last four months of late Rep. Don Young’s term.

She’s running again in November to serve the next full, two-year term.

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