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Alaska Natives celebrate historic first in Congress

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Democrat Mary Peltola took her oath of office yesterday and became the first Alaska native in Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARY PELTOLA: It is the honor of my life to represent Alaska, a place my elders and ancestors have called home for thousands of years.

SUMMERS: Peltola got to Congress by beating former Governor Sarah Palin in a special election to fill the seat of Republican Congressman Don Young, who died earlier this year. Nathan McCowan is chair of the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association. That's a group that advocates for the success of Alaska Natives. And he's here to tell us more about Congresswoman Mary Peltola and how her election win is being received in Alaska.

Nathan, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

NATHAN MCCOWAN: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

SUMMERS: Congresswoman Peltola is the sole representative for Alaska's residents. So can you just give us a sense of how important this election is to Alaska Natives? What have you been hearing from people?

MCCOWAN: It's uniform jubilation. People are feeling all a number of emotions that are hard to put into words. But celebration, sublime, transcendental euphoria - it's really quite a day for us. I have a good friend who starts every conversation with the statement that it's a good day to be Indigenous, and yesterday was - never a truer day to have that applied.

SUMMERS: As I mentioned, Peltola was sworn in to complete the term of Republican Congressman Don Young, who died in March after serving in Congress for 49 years. How might she represent your state differently?

MCCOWAN: I think that she'll have a different perspective, obviously, from Congressman Young. I mean, Congressman Young, for all of his idiosyncrasies, was a beloved figure by many people here. He had been a valiant defender of Alaska Natives. Congresswoman Peltola, you know, bringing an Alaska Native perspective is going to see things differently about how development happens here, about the trade-offs between hunting, fishing, gathering and the needs on the ground for jobs.

She also is going to have a different perspective in that she is coming from a standpoint after a fundamental piece of legislation that changed Alaska, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, came into existence. Both she and I were born after ANCSA passed. And ANCSA was a culmination of a very long process by our grandparents and our great grandparents to fight for our rights. And so I think, like, she understands on an intuitive level that grit and determination matter. And so having that hopefulness tied to those notions of perseverance, I think, are going to be a wonderful addition.

SUMMERS: What is one thing you think that people outside of Alaska should know about Mary Peltola as she starts her time in Congress?

MCCOWAN: She is every bit as genuine and charismatic as she seems. Congresswoman Peltola really does care about the individual, really does care about the community and really is genuinely interested in seeing everybody come together in a unified fashion. You've heard a lot of language out of her that she's the congressperson for all of Alaska, and she really takes that to heart. And so she is going to go out there and struggle and fight for and scrap and scrape to get to the things and interests that the people who didn't vote for her want as much as she is for the people that did.

SUMMERS: Nathan McCowan as the chair of the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association. Thank you so much for being with us.

MCCOWAN: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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