Native voices on display during FLOTUS visit to Bethel 'some very strong, powerful women were here'
When the first lady of the United States took the stage inside Bethel Regional High School’s gym on May 17, she was flanked by several influential Native women. It was a scene that deeply impacted many in the audience, like Bethel's Yup'ik mayor, Rose "Sugar" Henderson.
Henderson was one of several women who spoke during the historic visit from the first lady, but when she looked at everyone else on the stage she got emotional.
“Oh my goodness, it took everything I had not to cry up there when I got up there to give my speech. It is very special. And one of the things that made it even more special was if you looked at everybody up there, they were all a bunch of women. Some very strong, powerful women were here today,” Henderson said.
At one point, President and CEO of Bethel Native Corporation Ana Hoffman introduced Alaska’s Iñupiaq first lady, Rose Dunleavy, who stood near Bethel’s Yup’ik congressional representative, Mary Peltola. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, was also on stage. Each of them were there to welcome Dr. Jill Biden.
And that group made it to that stage through a lot of community effort, including the barriers built for the Secret Service to use for crowd control.
“I mean, all of these were built by our port workers. And the police department played a big part: they hosted a dinner, I believe, for the Secret Service. And so there was a lot of background people that did a lot of work," Henderson said.
The community also built the stage where the dignitaries stood above the crowd.
Hoffman said, “It was spectacular. The town turned out, the region turned out. We're so, so thrilled to have the first lady of the United States of America here. And Bethel showed its appreciation for her visit.”
The Bethel Native Corporation is the federal government’s partner in Airraq, the coming broadband internet expansion that prompted the visit. Hoffman said that she’s excited to see attention brought to a part of the state that is rarely heard from.
“Sometimes we’d feel unseen or unheard. We're very much seen and heard this evening," said Hoffman. “It was remarkable to have three Alaska Native women and one Native American Secretary of the Interior with that first lady. I was reflecting on that as we were preparing for this event, and we are just extremely proud of that situation. And it really shows the strength of Alaska, the strength of Native America."
Hoffman spoke to the crowd in Yugtun and even schooled the first lady.
“It was such an honor to speak in Yugtun onstage and to welcome, to include Yup'ik remarks in the welcoming remarks. And then to hear the first lady talk about Airraq and understand what an Airraq is. And to close her remarks by saying quyana. And as she was leaving, I reminded her third Yup'ik word is qaspeq. And so she's adding, her vocabulary is just growing, and it brings all of us pride to hear and speak our languages,” Hoffman said.
But it was Rep. Peltola who stole the show. Bethel Regional High School erupted when her name was announced. After the event, she said how much she appreciated the moment.
"It's so good to be home. And it's breakup; it’s always exciting time of year and this breakup was even more exciting,” Peltola said.
Alaska’s congresswoman was clearly overjoyed by the joy of the occasion, the greeting her hometown was giving the first lady, and the renewal that the season brings each year to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.