Mary Peltola May Be the First Alaska Native in Congress

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For almost a half century, Republican Don Young represented Alaska’s interests in Washington. Unflinching and unyielding, Young was the House of Representatives’ dean. He enjoyed wide respect in the chamber. People noticed that the House’s oldest member had an issue with legislation and they adjusted it accordingly.

Alaska was on the brink of complete change when Young, the former governor, died in March. The former governors of both states are now in the running for the next two-year term. 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. Many political observers were surprised by her performance in the ranked choice special election. While votes are still being tallied, she is leading Palin. The full term will see both women face-off in November.

You can dismiss as unoriginal the fact that Alaska Natives were the first to be elected to Congress. But when you consider how Alaska Natives are treated differently than other Native Americans, it’s worth taking a beat to appreciate the development. Native Americans are long held in shambles by Congress. Native Alaskans, however, have not yet been granted a seat at the Capitol. Native Alaskans often are treated as an inferior group to the First People of the Great Plains in laws that deal with indigenous populations.

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. With hundreds of billions in cash, Peltola can impress her new colleagues in ways that Young and Murkowski could not. 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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