ho˛zo˛o˛ nàjì’inthat | focus
ho˛zo˛o˛ nàjì’inthat | focus
ho˛zo˛o˛ nàjì’inthat | focus
pen and blueberry juice pigment illustration of Representative Mary Sattler Peltola (Yup’ik)

Representative Mary Sattler Peltola (Yup’ik) is the first Alaska Native and the first woman to represent Alaska in Congress. Portrait by Gratia Kautek; pen and blueberry juice pigment.

Mary Peltola Won

Why did mainstream media treat her like a loser?
By ilgavak (Peter Williams) (Yup’ik)

n August 31st, the dark brown ground meat was speckled with white bits of fat as I poured it into the bubbling tomato sauce. Steam rose from the stove and wafted across the apartment. When Kailee returned from work, the scent of a home-cooked meal greeted her at the door. We lazily caught up on the day. “They should tell us soon if Mary won,” I said as I stirred the sauce. “She did,” Kailee replied, with a glint in her eyes. “What, she won?!” I said, flooded with emotions and excitement. Someone who was deliberately excluded from having rights in the constitution was now elected to serve in Congress.

In “We the People: The three most misunderstood words in U.S. history,” Mark Charles (Navajo) explains:

Article I Section II is the Section of the Constitution that defines who is and who is not covered by this Constitution…If you read Article I Section II, the first thing you will note is it never mentions women. This is important because if you read the entire Constitution from preamble through the 27th amendment, you will find that there are fifty-one gender-specific male pronouns in regards to who can run for office, who can hold office, even who is protected by this document. Fifty-one he, him and his and not a single female pronoun. So, we first have to note, Article I Section II never mentions women. Second, it specifically excludes Natives and third, it counts Africans as three-fifths of a person. So, who is left?

The gravity of the situation was not lost on us as we nourished ourselves with the moose that gave itself a few weeks ago. This moment called for a celebration, so we stayed up late catching up on the new season of Reservation Dogs. Days following the special election filling the late representative Don Young’s vacant seat, I received texts from a few non-Native friends from outside Alaska who inquired about my opinion of the new elect. Others simply gave a shout-out to the first Alaska Native and the first woman from Alaska to serve in Congress who is also Yup’ik. Mainstream media also took notice as my news feed consistently pushed related articles.

As I read them, I began to see a trend with the reporting. Many news stories were specifically dedicated to Sarah Palin, Alaska’s inaugural ranked-choice voting, and rifts cropping up in the Republican party. All of this noise took up a significant amount of space. It is undeniable that these factors contributed to Peltola’s victory. However, we would be remiss to not attribute her victory to who she is, the issues she stands for, and her skills as a politician. “Republicans Have Only Themselves to Blame for Their Alaskan Defeat,” published in The Atlantic on September 1, 2022, noted that Mary’s win was a “remarkable victory” but did not credit Peltola for it. The conclusion of this piece claimed that “A majority of Alaskan voters preferred the Democrat. The fact that this could happen in a state as conservative as Alaska is really the GOP’s failure.”

Similarly, The Wall Street Journal’s article, “Sarah Palin Loses Alaska Special Election House Race to Democrat Mary Peltola” published on September 1, 2022 is subtle but telling with the following bold-type words in the secondary headline “Ranked-choice voting system determined winner, fills seat until January; candidates face rematch for next term this fall.” The article goes on to refer to Mary as “a Yup’ik Eskimo.”

The same day The Wall Street Journal printed an opinion piece by their editorial board, “Who Lost Alaska, Palin or Ranked Choice?” It included a backhanded compliment “Congratulations to Ms. Peltola, and no disrespect intended… but what in the heck? Alaska voted for President Trump in 2020 by 10 points. Is this now the true will of the electorate?” Some classic traits of an oppressive power are their tendency to ignore their hypocrisy, the privilege to construct reality, and their need to impose it on others. In fact, it is quite typical of them to insult someone while claiming they mean no disrespect.

Clearly, Peltola’s candidacy spoke to Republican voters despite the narrative that major news organizations wove.
The same piece went on to criticize the voting system, emphatically claimed that Mary’s victory is a result of this switch, and concluded with the following sentence: “In November voters will be asked to re-rank these candidates, so Republicans now have another two months to figure out how not to elect a Democrat.”

According to The Guardian, in the first round of the ranked-choice voting, out of the three candidates, 60% of the votes were registered by the two other candidates, both Republican. “The preferences of Begich’s supporters was striking. Only about half opted as their second choice to back Palin. Almost a third voted for the Democrat and almost as many gave no second choice.” The piece did not mention how many Palin supporters voted for Peltola or how many registered Republicans voted solely for Peltola since such data is difficult, if not impossible, to access. However, her victory is a testament to the substantial amount of bipartisan support she garnered. Clearly, Peltola’s candidacy spoke to Republican voters despite the narrative that major news organizations wove.

A childhood friend recently reminded me that it can be quite challenging to explain Alaska’s political landscape to those outside of it. The term purple—instead of red or blue—is a good place to start. A CNN article of August 31, 2022, “Mary Peltola set to make history as the first Alaska Native in Congress,” was one of the rare publications to mention the issues Mary stands for and how she appeals to a broad Alaskan voter base. “Peltola campaigned as a fishing advocate, a supporter of labor rights and a proponent of abortion rights.” The piece touched briefly on the latter: “‘We are very much covetous of our freedoms and our privacy,’ she said. She also pointed to a dark history of Alaska Native women being the target of forced sterilizations into the mid-20th century.”

However, the article did not mention Mary’s platform on climate change or provide any insights into her work on fisheries, Tribal issues and how she is pro-family. The article’s primary focus was Mary’s personal history with two high-profile Republican figures.

She has a warm relationship with Palin, who once gave her family’s backyard trampoline to Peltola’s family, and she once spent Thanksgiving with the late Rep. Don Young, an old teaching colleague and hunting buddy of her father’s whose former seat she and Palin sought to fill for the remainder of 2022.

It’s important to point out that the first description of her relationship with Palin is one of domestic nature and not in the context of their political careers.

Approximately 30 lines later, under the subheading “Colleagues before they were rivals” the CNN article states, “The two were expectant mothers working at the statehouse in Juneau at the same time. When Palin left Juneau in 2009, she and her then-husband Todd gave their backyard trampoline to Peltola’s family.” Again, this account highlights the maternity aspect of both these successful politicians instead of highlighting their many professional achievements. It also restates how Palin’s family gifted Peltola’s family a used trampoline, signaling that this event is preeminent to the story, while further derailing from their skills and accomplishments as politicians, hovering in the airspace of sexist, racist tropes and white saviorism.

The piece did note that Mary spent ten years in Alaska’s House of Representatives, “where she chaired the bipartisan ‘bush’ caucus of rural lawmakers and overlapped with Palin” who served as governor from 2006 through mid-2009. To CNN’s credit, at that time, the majority of prominent publications hadn’t even touched upon Mary’s political career. However, even their story was largely unidimensional, without any information on the outcomes of Peltola’s bipartisan leadership or what she and Palin worked on.

In describing her ethnicity and age, the piece said, “Peltola, who turned 49 on Wednesday, is the daughter of a Yup’ik mother and a Nebraskan father who had moved north to teach school and later became a bush pilot.” Needless to say, naming a racially defined group of people followed by a statement indicating the state someone moved from is harmful white centering and erasure. There is a wide range of ethnicities, including BIPOC who are Nebraskan, let alone Indigenous peoples such as Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Pawnee, Ponca, Omaha, Oto, Missouri and Kaw, to name a few.

Although the CNN article primarily focused on Peltola’s win through examples of her history of forming and maintaining relationships with Republicans in her personal life, some of Mary’s political relationships along with her cultural worldview were mentioned.

The Yup’ik people, she said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday ahead of the ranked choice tabulation, are “holistic” thinkers. “Everything is interconnected,” Peltola said. “When we talk about community wellness, we talk about the entire community. I do think of things in very broad terms, and I do recognize that in Alaska, even though we have a huge footprint, we are a very small in numbers population, and we are all related.”

As problematic as the CNN article is, at its time of publication, it is noticeably more comprehensive, offering in-depth insights into who she is and how she speaks to the broad diversity of Alaskans, as well as how Peltola became an elected member of Congress. Analyzing several other mainstream news publications that reported about Mary’s win points to the stark settler colonial misogyny and anti-Nativeness, coupled with the glaring reluctance to accept that an Indigenous woman was elected on her own merits.

As I read the articles, I wondered why these journalists were not exploring more of the issues Mary Peltola stood for and whether she was able to mobilize new voting demographics. Did they even bother to go to her campaign website?

As time flew by and Peltola’s victory was recognized and accepted, it seemed that the tone of reporting had shifted. Mainstream news organizations took the time to learn a bit about her, Alaska politics and the issues she ran on. The tone of the articles now indicated an appreciation for what she accomplished. For instance, The New York Times published an article on September 13, 2022 that stated:

Ms. Peltola worked as a councilwoman in Bethel before serving in the Alaska House for a decade. She then became director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which led her to testify before Congress, raising concerns about dwindling salmon and crab populations and asking lawmakers to ensure that Indigenous people were equal partners in any changes to fish management.

The Washington Post published, on September 16, 2022, “What good is 16 weeks in Congress? Mary Peltola is about to show us.” It stated:

On Monday, she did an MSNBC hit, during which the host compared her to both Barack and Michelle Obama, then swore her oath of office around 6:41 p.m. Tuesday on the floor of the House while wearing the traditional fur-lined footwear of the Yup’ik people. Within the hour, she cast her first three votes as a congresswoman, then shepherded her four children and three stepchildren and two grandchildren to a jubilant reception hosted by Alaska Native organizations and headlined by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — all while running, on the side, yet another campaign: to retain the office she was just elected to…

The piece, however, did not explicitly detail how the MSNBC host compared Peltola to both Barack and Michelle Obama. However, her charisma is radiant and one cannot help but remember the underlying racist connotations, both publicly and privately, when Barack was elected. Can he handle it all? This was not overtly expressed in the two aforementioned articles, and instead, there was a significant focus on how much Peltola had to do and learn quickly.

Other comparisons with the Obamas that come to mind are the narratives of racial exceptions and the post-racial myth. Headlines claim Mary as the “first Alaska Native” to serve as a member of Congress; this is true. Perhaps they should mention, however, that she is the first Yup’ik in Congress, since an Alaska Native can hail from any of the 23 distinct language groups across the State. Alaska Native is not a monolithic group of people.

Clearly, Peltola will represent the many Alaskan Tribal groups as she would represent all Alaskans. The Washington Post quotes Mary about her willingness to be an elected leader for all.

“I am very sensitive about the way in which MAGA people feel disenfranchised, forgotten, left behind,” Peltola told Reid, adding: “If you’re an American, I want to work with you… I try to stay away from messages of fear and hate.”
The purpose of the piece… is to point out that patriarchy and colonialism are so entrenched into the fabric of our daily lives that they are blatantly broadcasted untethered.

About a week later, there was yet another shift in the mass media trends reporting Mary’s Congressional win. Although the initial reports that began on September 1st were particularly upsetting, what came later were the more bizarre. I encountered them when I did a quick Google search for Mary Peltola. The titles for the links to the news articles, both published on September 20, are different from their headlines.

The link to a USA Today article is titled “In adding Peltola, Congress has full U.S. Indigenous representation” but once you click on it, the heading reads “For first time in 233 years, Native American, Native Alaskan, Native Hawaiian all in U.S. House.”

NPR’s link is titled “Congress now has full U.S. Indigenous representation” however when you click on the link the headline is “U.S. Congress reaches a milestone in Indigenous representation.”

This glaring difference between the titles of the links claiming “full U.S. Indigenous representation,” while omitting it from the headlines, is as symbolic as it is literal. It does seem as though the media outlets’ claims are intended to feed a post-racial myth absolving them from doing anti-racist work and the responsibility they must undertake for their role in settler colonialism.

However, it does seem they also realize on some level that they cannot put the words in the actual headline due to their inaccuracy. According to an article published by NPR itself, on April 17, 2021, there are 574 federally recognized Tribes and “more than 200 tribes do not have federal recognition.” (The piece did not mention the unrecognized Indigenous peoples of the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.) How can six Indigenous people serving as members of Congress equate to a “full representation” of such a vastly diverse and high number of U.S. Indigenous groups?

Both the NPR and USA Today articles cite a celebratory Tweet from Congressman Kaiali‘i Kahele welcoming Peltola to Congress, as the source validating their “full U.S. Indigenous representation” claims. The Tweet reads:

It has taken 233 years for the U.S. Congress to be fully represented by this country’s Indigenous peoples. Tonight, a Native American, a Native Alaskan & a Native Hawaiian are sitting members of the people’s House. Welcome U.S. Representative Peltola to the 117th Congress!

NPR and USA Today did not cite an interview, article or scholarly paper, but a short congratulatory social-media post which included a photo of Kaiali‘i Kahele standing next to his colleagues Mary Peltola and Sharice Davids.

I cannot state with certainty as to what Representative Kahele meant with the Tweet other than to congratulate and celebrate Peltola and the achievements of Indigenous people being elected to Congress. Nor do I know if he would agree or disagree with my critique that it is, in fact, inaccurate to claim “full U.S. Indigenous representation” in Congress. Or, for that matter, how NPR and USA Today, among other news organizations, would respond to the points I brought up. Maybe after some self-reflection, they would agree.

This article I am authoring is not the one I personally wanted to read with respect to the profound congressional election victory of Mary Peltola and what that means for broader society. Or the one I think Mary deserves for that achievement; it is a strange dichotomy where I am not writing the articles that I hope to find on my news feed. The purpose of the piece is not to shame or ruin anyone’s career. It is to point out that patriarchy and colonialism are so entrenched into the fabric of our daily lives that they are blatantly broadcasted untethered. Demanding better education, reform and cultural sensitivity in mainstream media while, holding them accountable, will lead to future articles that Peltola and other women Indigenous politicians do deserve.

In that spirit, here are some closing words about why I think Peltola’s win is a gain for everyone, largely because I see it as part of the vital movement that has been awakening across the country for about the past eight years. Yet, it is rooted in 500 years of Indigenous resistance to colonialism and stems back even further since time immemorial: with Native ways of knowing, through reciprocity, we all thrive. As The New York Times reported, Peltola said in her first floor speech, “It is the honor of my life to represent Alaska, a place my Elders and Ancestors have called home for thousands of years,” She added, “To be clear, I am here to represent all Alaskans.”

As modern humanity faces many systemically created extinction-level events, Congresswoman Peltola’s experience and willingness to deal with climate change, food insecurity, drastically low fish returns and social inequities is a huge benefit for all. Most importantly, I think although we disagree on some issues, I believe she will be open to my far-left liberalism and do her best to represent my concerns, just as I believe that she will do the same for those with political views on the other end of the spectrum.

The bipartisan nature of Peltola’s political leadership is not only refreshing but crucial for the future of our society as we have to work together like never before in order to survive. At the same time, we are doing so in one of the most polarizing political landscapes in US history. Political leaders need not act as saviors or instigate division but must serve as bridges between all our human and non-human relatives, a value to which Congresswoman Peltola seems committed.

ilgavak Peter Williams (Yup’ik) is a culture bearer, artist, designer, filmmaker, and educator based in Sheet’ká (Sitka). Williams has guest lectured and/or taught skin sewing at universities and museums. Williams’s professional and personal work is increasingly focused on climate change and its disproportionate effects on Indigenous peoples.