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Rep. Peltola says her Alaskan heritage is interwoven into everything she does

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A new member of Congress started work this week. Mary Peltola recently beat Sarah Palin in a special election. Peltola is Yup'ik and the first Alaska Native in Congress. Before her swearing in, Peltola went home to Bethel, a town of about 6,000 people in rural southwest Alaska. KYUK's Nina Kravinsky was there for Peltola's homecoming.

ST SOPHIA ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN CHURCH CHOIR: (Singing) Give us this day our daily bread.

NINA KRAVINSKY, BYLINE: Peltola's supporters gathered for a feast at the Bethel library. Dishes potluck-style filled a long table. In front of it, the Bethel Russian Orthodox choir sang. Priest Michael Trethowan blessed the food. Then he turned to Peltola and blessed her.

MICHAEL TREFON: Assist Mary, we pray thee, and direct her to divine wisdom and power.

KRAVINSKY: Peltola wiped away tears as the choir switched into a Yup'ik rendition of "God Grant Me Many Years."

ST SOPHIA ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN CHURCH CHOIR: (Singing in non-English language).

KRAVINSKY: Peltola flew 400 miles west of Anchorage, the closest big city, to be here in Bethel. The only way to get here is by boat or plane. Most people in Bethel are Yup'ik. And most Peltola supporters at the library event know the congresswoman well, like Melanie Fredericks and her daughter, MaeLynn, who are family friends.

MELANIE FREDERICKS: I know and believe wholeheartedly that she's going to work hard and do her best to represent our state.

KRAVINSKY: Bethany Kaiser is also looking forward to Peltola representing the whole state. The paralegal is from Bethel. And she's one of several people I talked to who cried when she heard the election results.

BETHANY KAISER: I think she really can relate to not just Bethel, like, rural Alaska in general, like, all over the state. I think she can really relate to coming from a small town and knowing the challenges that we all face out here.

KRAVINSKY: One of those challenges is food security, which Peltola made a big part of her campaign and why 77-year-old subsistence fisherman John W. Andrew (ph) had the reaction he did when he heard Peltola was elected.

JOHN W ANDREW: It gave me indescribable joy.

KRAVINSKY: Andrew is from Kwethluk, a village of about 700 upriver from Bethel. Peltola's mother is from Kwethluk, too. And the congresswoman spent part of her life there. Ninety-three percent of voters in Kwethluk voted for Peltola.

ANDREW: Some years ago, some elder told me, our region is the last of the sleeping giants. So I think what that elder meant was our people in this region have a lot of potential.

KRAVINSKY: Andrew has worked with the congresswoman on subsistence fishing committees, committees that are trying to fix a huge problem here. Recently, fewer and fewer salmon have been swimming upstream in the summer in a place where people have relied on the fish for food for thousands of years. Andrew is happy to have someone in Congress who knows just how much of a problem that is. Anything that isn't caught, hunted or picked by hand needs to come in by plane or barge, driving up prices on the grocery store shelf. To try to restore the salmon population, Peltola has proposed stricter bycatch limits on commercial fishing operations.

ANDREW: Coming from a small community, she has a lot of cultural values she practices, like to share with all your relatives what was given to you from the wilderness.

KRAVINSKY: Peltola says she's proud to be Yup'ik. But it's only part of her identity. She says she plans to represent all Alaskans as the state's sole House member.

MARY PELTOLA: My perspective, my worldview, is from this region. So I think it will be interwoven into every single thing that I do.

KRAVINSKY: Peltola will serve the last four months of the late Congressman Don Young's term. She's running against Sarah Palin again in November to serve the next full two-year term.

For NPR News, I'm Nina Kravinsky in Bethel, Alaska.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAMS CASINO'S "TREETOP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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