Alaska Congresswoman Mary Peltola was met with a standing ovation when she took to the stage at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage on Saturday. She wore a beaded bolo tie she received from the family of Don Young after her election to the late congressman’s seat last year.
“It was just a year ago,” she said. “I stood before you giving my first address as a member of our congressional delegation and the welcome was just overwhelming and now, a year later, um…”
She paused. Then added “you know.”
This was Peltola’s first major public appearance since her husband passed away after a plane crash earlier this fall. After she collected herself, she acknowledged that her first week back in Washington, D.C., has been rough as the U.S. House struggles to elect a new speaker.
“With a collaborative approach, we can help people find common ground and get off high-center,” she said.
“We all know what high center means, right? When you’re on high center? I’ve even had to explain this to people in the Lower 48. They just go blank, they don’t even know what high center means and it’s like that’s what we’re on right now federally, guys,” she said, adding that she understands what the late Congressman Young meant when he used the term “Alaska-splaining.”
Peltola came to AFN to offer a report on her first year in office. She highlighted some of her achievements, including investment in public infrastructure, and broadband connection in Western Alaska. She also pointed to a recent $206.5 million grant announcement from the Department of Energy for electricity and battery storage.
But her main focus aligned with the theme of this year’s AFN convention: Our Ways of Life. In front of banner images of children picking berries and helping hang and dry salmon, Peltola said food security is her focus.
“I’m taking an all-of-the-above approach on being pro-fish, which includes re-envisioning how we fit fish into our national food security system and addressing the problems of food insecurity,” she said.
She said poor salmon returns on multiple rivers in Alaska in recent years is “a food security crisis,” and said solutions will only come with continued and consistent attention on the issue from Alaska’s Indigenous people.
“We need all of you to keep up the pressure and the respectful demands for change,” she said. “We cannot be satisfied until our nets are full. We are still a long way out, but I believe we will see abundance again.”
Last year, the federal government filed suit against the state saying it’s violating a federal law that says rural residents should have subsistence priority in times of shortage. A week prior to its annual convention this year, a judge granted a motion to allow AFN to intervene in the case.
But for the crowd, which filled the main hall at Anchorage’s Dena’ina Convention Center, Peltola’s time on the AFN stage wasn’t just about the work she’s done in Washington.
After her speech, AFN co-chair Ana Hoffman was among a quartet that gathered around the lectern to perform songs they sang at the funeral for Mary’s late husband Buzzy Peltola last month in Bethel. Alongside Hoffman, were Trim Nick, Nicholai Joekay and Sheri Buretta.
A slideshow of candid family photos Peltola sent to AFN played for the audience as a remembrance for Buzzy, a man who has been described as a keen political strategist who had a passion for the subsistence lifestyle and believed that Alaska Natives deserve more control of their hunting and fishing rights.
The slideshow’s final photo remained on the screen for a few minutes: a shot of Buzzy smiling and driving a boat, on a sunny Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta day. For nearly a minute and a half after the singing ended, the crowd sat almost perfectly still.
At the close of this year’s convention, the AFN members from Northwest Alaska stood and sang a hymn written by Kivalina elder, Austin Thomas. The song is titled “Aarigaa,” which means “to feel good” in Iñupiaq. It includes a line that translates in English to “the road to heaven is beautiful.”