“Indigenous people, we are very inclusive, we really think of things in a very holistic way,” Rep. Mary Peltola told the assembled student bodies of Mt. Edgecumbe, Sitka High, and Pacific High schools. “We think about all the people in our communities, not not just Native people. We’re all related. And we know that we’re all in this together. And so it is nice to be recognized and be seen as part of the universe of people who make up our society.” (KCAW/Woolsey)

US Representative Mary Peltola was in Sitka for Indigenous Peoples’ Day on October 10. Her first stop of the day was at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, which hosted a first-ever all-student assembly for the three high schools in Sitka.

Peltola used the occasion to deliver a very personal message about fear, growth, and the power of love.

Cheering students

“Good morning, and welcome to today’s assembly. Thank you to Congresswoman Mary Peltola for joining us in recognition of, and in honor of, Indigenous People’s Day. I’m Felix Myers, vice president of the Sitka High School student body…”

The Mt. Edgecumbe gym is the only building big enough to hold everyone from its campus, plus the student body of Sitka High and Pacific High schools. You might see this many people packing the bleachers for a regional basketball tournament, but probably not for a politician.

But, as it turns out, in the following introduction, we learned that Rep. Peltola is not just another politician visiting Mt. Edgecumbe for a photo op.

(Nora Nelson, introducing herself in Yup’ik.) “Hello, my name is Nora Nelson and I’m honored to be able to introduce to you Alaska’s only representative to the US House of Representatives, my mom Mary Peltola.”

Nora Nelson is a freshman at Mt. Edgecumbe. Her mom, Rep. Mary Peltola drew a connection between that and her own experience as a freshman member of the United States House of Representatives.

“There is a lot of fear that goes into putting yourself out there and running for something,” said Peltola, “and a lot of fear in newness, about going to a completely different environment, becoming part of a completely different culture and process. And so I really identify, again, with high school students and all of the newness of becoming an adult, and finding your way in  a new environment and a new process and new roles, and figuring out where you belong in that.”

Peltola encouraged students to surrender to fear, embrace other people, and be confident  that they would emerge stronger.

Peltola received a paddle made by Clover, a Tlingit student from Sitka, bearing the Raven and Eagle, and fish scales to represent Peltola’s commitment to fisheries. “The paddle is a way to move forward,” Clover said during the presentation. (KCAW/Woolsey)

This is not the usual sort of rhetoric politicians engage in on the eve of a contentious midterm election, but it is the straightforward candor that brought Peltola notice during the special primary and election to replace the late Congressman Don Young.

She told students that part of her success so far in politics – especially in her role serving on the Kuskokwim Intertribal Fish Commission – was to master her anger by listening to and watching elders, and clearing her mind in order to move forward. Petola believed that strategy was applicable on a larger scale.

“Nationally, we have a lot of rhetoric that talks about fear and hatred as a motivator,” Peltola told the assembly, “and that just sets us all back. That sets us back as Americans. That sets us back as community members. And one of the best things I’ve learned through traditional knowledge is when you’re facing challenges, you have to come at it from a place of love and patience. And think about how to manage your emotions so that you can put your thinking cap on, you can work through problems together, and not see the people in the room as adversaries or opponents. We’re all in this together. We have a diverse group of people that make up Alaskans, but we have a common future. We all have  a lot at stake, and we have a lot to gain.”

Yup’ik Dance Group giving instructions…

The assembly concluded with what could be described as a Yup’ik flash mob, as Mt. Edgecumbe’s Yup’ik Dance Group invited everyone from all schools onto the gym floor to learn a traditional welcome dance, which concludes with a hug. The idea is to dance with someone you don’t know and, according to the dance caller, “If you’re not friends at the beginning, you will be by the end.”

The assembled student bodies, administrators, teachers, and Rep. Peltola all found partners, learned the dance, and ran through it not once – but three times.

MEHS superintendent Suzzuk Huntington (left) pairs with Sitka Schools superintendent Frank Hauser for a Yup’ik welcoming dance. Rep. Mary Peltola (r.) joined Sitka High American Government teacher Howard Wayne for the dance. (KCAW/Woolsey)