For Alaska’s Mary Peltola, Making History Means Less Sleep

The first Alaska Native to represent the 49th state says she is operating on adrenaline and joy as she settles in.
Rep. Mary Peltola smiles during her ceremonial swearing-in ceremony off of the House floor Tuesday evening.
Rep. Mary Peltola smiles during her ceremonial swearing-in ceremony off of the House floor Tuesday evening.
Tom Williams via Getty Images

Mary Peltola, who made history Tuesday by being sworn in as the first Indigenous person to represent Alaska, says she’s operating on only a few hours of sleep a night as she settles into her new job.

“It’s very hard to wind down at night. And where in the past it might take one melatonin, it’s taking two melatonins now to get a little bit of shuteye,” she told HuffPost in an interview Wednesday.

But she’s enjoying the experience.

“I’m telling you, the power of adrenaline and the power of joy and feeding off of other people’s excitement, is the best fuel out there.”

Peltola’s life has been a whirlwind since arriving in Washington over the weekend ahead of the swearing-in ceremony and related activities as she takes over Alaska’s sole House seat, which had been held by Republican Don Young for almost 50 years until his death in March.

Her office is marked by a temporary sign, not the heavy metal plaques that adorn other members’ offices. Bare office walls now can be seen, where once was displayed the massive pelt of a brown bear Young had killed.

And Peltola’s path to history was not exactly conventional either. In a field of 48 candidates, she emerged as the Democratic alternative to two Republicans with much better name recognition: former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, who comes from a famous Alaska political family.

“I’m telling you, the power of adrenaline and the power of joy and feeding off of other people’s excitement, is the best fuel out there.”

- Rep. Mary Peltola (D-Alaska)

While Alaska has historically not been great territory politically for Democrats, Peltola won a plurality of the special election vote to finish out the remainder of Young’s term. She then received a majority when the ranked choice votes were tabulated. Her margin was a bit more than 5,000 votes. The results were released Aug. 31, on her 49th birthday.

“So this was never a foregone conclusion. It was always a longshot,” Peltola said. “But also, I think, it was one of those things that could be within the realm of possibilities.”

Peltola’s swearing-in was also unconventional. She wore mukluks, the snow boots favored by Indigenous peoples near the Arctic, made in the female style of her Yup’ik Alaska Native heritage and was accompanied on the House floor by the other two members of Alaska’s congressional delegation, Republican Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski.

Murkowski gave Peltola a big hug after Peltola finished her first floor remarks.

“The funny thing about Alaska is there is this understanding that you are going to be working with these people the rest of your life, and we have a long memory, we have a lot of institutional knowledge. In my case, that has been a real asset.”

- Rep. Mary Peltola (D-Alaska)

Peltola’s known Murkowski since 1999, when the two were freshmen lawmakers at the Alaska Statehouse. And Peltola knows Palin, from when they, too, were at the statehouse together and pregnant at the same time. While Alaska by size is the biggest state, its political scene is relatively small, which Peltola said fosters a sense of pragmatism and cooperation.

“Alaska is a very small, tight knit close community,” she said. “The funny thing about Alaska is there is this understanding that you are going to be working with these people the rest of your life, and we have a long memory, we have a lot of institutional knowledge. In my case, that has been a real asset.”

Peltola said her approach to her job would be broad as well. Even though she has been inundated with attention as the first Alaska Native to represent her state, her father hailed from Nebraska, and she does not see herself as simply an advocate for one group or another.

“You can’t be thinking about just your ‘base.’ There’s just no way that you can have discrete groups that you are an advocate for. It has to be everybody,” she said.

Along those lines, Peltola retained Young’s chief of staff, a Republican, and her issue stances may be best described as a mix of energy-friendly mainstream Democratic ones: She favors “responsible resource development,” making it easier for workers to join unions and reviving the bigger child tax credit in the American Rescue Plan that has now lapsed.

With House lawmakers set to leave Washington at the end of the month to hit the campaign trail, where Peltola will again face Palin and Begich in November, Peltola said she’s focused on getting a reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens fishery policy law passed to deal with declining catches and depleted salmon runs.

Peltola appeared at a hearing on the law in November and her pre-congressional job was with Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. But with Democrats focused on ensuring the government is funded past Sept. 30, the likelihood of action on the issue soon is unclear.

“We all have a relationship with salmon,” she said of Alaskans. “We all depend on salmon in one way or another either as a food resource for our own family or as a trading resource.”

“We all depend on salmon in one way or another either as a food resource for our own family or as a trading resource.”

- Rep. Mary Peltola (D-Alaska)

Peltola also said it was too soon to say whether she would support Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) call for easing energy project permitting requirements, an issue that could get attached to a temporary funding bill.

“I tend to be confident in our permitting process as it stands,” she said. “It’s not perfect. There’s always room for improvement. But I would need to see what the suggestions are before I could speak to if I support them.”

But things like the sausage-making of legislating lay ahead of Peltola on her second official day in office. She said she was still taking in the whole experience.

“I think I’m like my sister, where she just said there was so much, and it’s hard to process it in the same day or even just sleeping on it. There was so much joy and so much excitement, and I just don’t know how you ever top that.”

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