First Lady Jill Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visit Bethel

Jill Biden
First Lady Dr. Jill Biden wears a qaspeq gifted to her by Rep. Mary Peltola and Ana Hoffman, president of the Bethel Native Corporation, on Wednesday in Bethel. (MaryCait Dolan/KYUK)

Bethel was the site of a VIP visit Wednesday, when First Lady Jill Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland arrived to tout a telecommunications project financed with federal infrastructure funds. Part of Bethel Regional High School was secured to receive the dignitaries.

The first lady’s visit occurred just hours after her husband, President Joe Biden, made a refueling stop in Anchorage aboard Air Force One. Both Bidens stopped in Alaska on their way to the G-7 economic summit in Japan.

Jill Biden and Deb Haaland
First Lady Jill Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland are greeted on the tarmac as they arrive in Bethel. (MaryCait Dolan/KYUK)

First Lady Jill Biden is the first spouse of a sitting president to visit the Southwest Alaska hub of Bethel. She and Haaland touched down at 5:39 p.m. Wednesday. Biden exited their plane first, waving to reporters as she stepped outside onto a mobile stairway. The wind was strong and chilly, with temperatures in the high 30s. It had snowed earlier in the day. 

Biden and Haaland were greeted by three Alaska Native women: Congresswoman Mary Peltola, Alaska first lady Rose Dunleavy and Bethel Mayor Rose “Sugar” Henderson. 

Biden, Haaland, Peltola and Dunleavy got in vehicles and made their way to the high school. Along the way, the motorcade was greeted by residents along the side of the road.

Bethel residents
Bethel residents stand along Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway to welcome First Lady Jill Biden. (MaryCait Dolan/KYUK)

When the motorcade arrived at the high school, Henderson and other Bethel leaders spoke to the crowd. Hoffman, president and CEO of the Bethel Native Corporation also spoke, as well as Dunleavy, Haaland, Peltola and Biden. 

In Biden’s speech, she referenced her last visit to Alaska, where she received her Yup’ik name. 

“I had the opportunity to visit the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage, where I met Valerie Davidson, the president of the consortium and a daughter of Bethel. And through Valerie and her team, I got to know this incredible state a bit better,” Biden said.

Jill Biden, Deb Haaland and Mary Peltola
First Lady Jill Biden, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Rep. Mary Peltola speak at Bethel Regional High School. (MaryCait Dolan/KYUK)

Biden said she understood the connection to family, tradition and the natural world, as well as the importance of subsistence.

“And yet, I also learned about the challenges you face, and how communities in rural areas like this one often feel unseen and unappreciated for their unique contributions to our country,” Biden said.

Biden touted the Biden-Harris administration’s work to invest $100 million in the region to bring an affordable, faster and more reliable internet to Alaska through a partnership of BNC and GCI extending fiber-optic cable inland from the coast of Kuskokwim Bay.

“This is one of the largest tribal broadband expansions in the country. With high-speed internet, you’ll have better access to critical health care, new educational tools and remote job opportunities,” said Biden. “It will change lives. It will save lives.”

After the speech, there was a performance from Ayaprun Elitnaurvik students and Biden was given a qaspaq, a traditional overshirt. The colors? Red, white and blue, of course.

Jill Biden and kids
First Lady Jill Biden poses with Ayaprun Elitnaurvik students at an Investing in America event at Bethel Regional High School on May 17, 2023 in Bethel, Alaska. (Katie Basile)
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