An Alaska Native Has Never Served in Congress. Mary Peltola May Be About to Change That

3 minute read

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For almost a half century, Republican Don Young represented Alaska’s interests in Washington. An unflappable and unyielding legislator who broke the record for serving as the dean of the House of Representatives, he commanded broad deference in the chamber. When the oldest member of the House had an issue with a piece of legislation, folks noticed and adjusted the bill at hand.

So when Young died in March, Alaska had a chance for the first time in 49 years to reset their foothold in D.C. And, as voting continues in Alaska a week on from their two-fer special election and primary, it is clear Alaska is on the verge of a complete pivot. Both former Gov. Sarah Palin, a Republican, and former state Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat, filed for both the special election to finish Young’s term and the race to fill the seat for the next two-year term that starts in January.

Peltola, a member of the Yup’ik tribe, would be the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress. She caught some political observers by surprise with her showing in the ranked-choice special election, where votes are still being counted but she is currently leading Palin. Both women will face off again in November for the full term.

The distinction of the first Alaska Native in Congress is easy to brush off as novel in the Lower 48. But when you consider how Alaska Natives are treated differently than other Native Americans, it’s worth taking a beat to appreciate the development. While Native Americans have long had a tepid toehold in Congress, Native Alaskans have yet to have one of their own at the Capitol. The laws around indigenous populations often treat Native Alaskans as a cut apart from the First People found on the Great Plains.

And that’s why Native Alaskans are watching the glacially slow vote count with tremendous interest.

It’s easy to say representation matters, and the last few years have proven why having a seat at the table is paramount. But the prospect of Alaska Natives gaining a voice in Congress is something different—especially since they’ve never had one. While lobbyists for Alaska Natives are quick to praise the state’s senior Senator, Lisa Murkowski, for being a consistent ally, they note there’s a difference between having an advocate in the room and one of their own. And, with hundreds of billions of dollars in the balance, Peltola could impress upon her new colleagues in a distinct way that neither Murkowski nor Young ever could. After all, it’s one thing to allocate cash in the abstract. It’s quite another when you’re sitting at a conference table and have to tell someone that their claim on the pool is less valid than someone else’s.

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