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Alaska Natives unite in person after two-year hiatus

The Alaska Federation of Natives kicked off their first in-person convention since the Covid pandemic with a historic keynote speaker: U.S. Representative Mary Peltola, the first Alaska Native woman ever elected to Congress.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) — The largest representative annual gathering in the United States of any native peoples, the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention began Thursday with the overarching theme of unity — after two years of virtual meetings due to Covid-19, the tribes united in person in Anchorage for the 56th annual event.

“I’m so happy people are here in person,” AFN president Julie Kitka said. “Those virtual conventions just didn’t work for me.”

On top of being able to convene in person for the first time since 2019, convention-goers were greeted by keynote speaker, U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat and the first Alaska Native woman elected to Congress. Peltola is serving the remainder of Republican Don Young’s term following his death in March 2022. She took the stage greeted by a cheering and welcoming crowd, many waving hand fans with a picture of her face.

Peltola began her speech by bringing Young’s wife and daughters to the stage to thank them for sharing their late husband and father — the longest serving Republican in congressional history — in service to Alaskans for so much of their lives. Young's family showed their support of Peltola by gifting her Young’s signature bolo tie, bringing tears to her eyes. Young wore the beaded tie featuring the Alaska state flag for most of his 49 years in Congress.

“It’s a symbol of being the congresswoman for all Alaska. So it’s kind of like passing the mantle,” Young’s daughter Joni Nelson, who made the tie for her father, told Anchorage Daily News. “I felt it was a nice thing to do. The right thing to do.”

Peltola then spoke to the theme of the convention. “This is what democracy is built on: Unity. Coming together. Compromising. Building consensus, building coalitions, working together. Seeing each other as humans,” she said. “Just all of the things that help us jell and work through our problems.”

The audience appeared united in support for Peltola, cheering and clapping often as she spoke to the theme as well as her love for AFN gatherings growing up.

“I’m uplifted in this moment because of you,” Peltola said. “After years of Covid and through economic and political storms, we’re together again, celebrating our unity. And I stand before you very humbled. And I’m only able to stand before you in this way because of our unity and because of the faith and hope and love and courage and wisdom in this room.”

U.S. Congresswoman Mary Peltola, keynote speaker at AFN. (Julie St. Louis/Courthouse News)

After Peltola finished speaking, while still standing on stage to receive gifts from AFN leadership, tribal members sitting in the area of the convention center for Peltola’s home district of Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta broke out in song. “We wish you many years,” the group sang over and over in what is a traditional Orthodox blessing. Then the Northwest region, the section to the left of the YK Delta group, began singing an Inupiaq language hymn. Not to be left out, the Interior Alaskan section next added a short song of hallelujah.

Peltola beamed on stage listening to the songs that were then followed by elder men from her community walking up on stage reminding all in attendance to get out and vote in November. Peltola is vying for reelection to a full term in Congress against a well known challenger, former Governor Sarah Palin who was also a vice presidential candidate on the 2008 ticket with the late Senator John McCain.

Peltola edged out Palin in Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system in a special election that coincided with the state’s August midterm primary. Palin is the first Republican to lose to a Democrat in a statewide election since 2008, when Democrat Mark Begich, third-place contender Nick Beghich’s uncle, won one term in the U.S. Senate until the seat flipped back to Republican Dan Sullivan.

The convention continues through Saturday with various breakout sessions on environment, health and other issues impacting tribal members throughout the state. Each evening, tribal dance groups perform in traditional regalia. Both of Alaska’s Republican U.S. senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, will address the convention in subsequent days.

The Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) is the largest statewide Native organization in Alaska. Its membership includes 158 federally recognized tribes, 141 village corporations, 10 regional corporations, and 12 regional nonprofit and tribal consortiums that contract and compact to run federal and state programs. AFN is governed by a 38-member board, which is elected by its membership at the annual convention held each October.

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