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Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta leaders remember Don Young

Rep. Don Young visits Bethel in 2018.
Christine Trudeau
Rep. Don Young visits Bethel in 2018.

By now, you’ve likely heard of U.S. Congressman Don Young’s death. He was pronounced dead in the Seattle airport on Mar. 18 after serving in his position for 49 years.

Young had a close personal relationship to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta dating back to his early campaign days. And, once elected, some residents say his policies during his tenure benefited the region.

Early in Young’s political life, according to his old friend Ward Sattler, Young was one of the first federal politicians to campaign in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages. Sattler said that Young’s hard work on the campaign trail helped him carry the Y-K Delta in elections.

Fifty years ago, Young, not yet a congressman, flew to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta for what was likely the first time. Young wanted to win the vote of the region, and Sattler and his then-wife, Elizabeth Sattler of Kwethluk, knew how to help him. He needed to fly to the villages to campaign, and Sattler was a pilot. The couple were friends with Young from their early days in Fort Yukon.

“We put together a slideshow about Don and his family, and his life in Fort Yukon showing that he could relate with people in villages because he lives in a village. And we just had many pictures of Fort Yukon, and Don, and Lu, and the way he lived there, his team and river barge, and things like that, and hunting,” said Sattler.

The couple traveled to the villages with Young, presenting their slideshow. Elizabeth translated Young’s speeches and comments into Yup’ik. After the presentation, Young even projected some “moving picture” entertainment. That, Sattler said, was a rarity in the villages in those days.

“Incidentally, it was a John Wayne movie, ‘North to Alaska.’ And of course, that was a big movie back in those days,” said Sattler.

Local Y-K Delta leader Gene Peltola Sr. was watching that campaign season. He also watched as Young lost to Nick Begich. Begich had perished in a plane crash prior to the election, but had not yet been declared dead, so Young lost to a dead man.

“That was kinda comical. It was a joke for a while in Alaska,” said Peltola.

Peltola said that he quickly warmed up to Young as their relationship grew closer and he saw the work Young had done for his employers, first the Association of Village Council Presidents, and then the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. Soon, Young’s ties to the region and to the hospital would grow even stronger.

“After we hired his daughter Dawn into our health aide program, that relationship became really excellent. We could go to Washington, D.C., don't even make an appointment and just walk in,” said Peltola.

That relationship continued to pay off after Peltola’s tenure. Current YKHC CEO Dan Winkelman agreed that Young was a strong supporter of the hospital. He could think of only one instance when Young was opposed to something that Tribal health advocates campaigned for. That was the Dental Health Aide Therapist program. But Winkelman said that when Young visited the Y-K Delta clinics to see how the program could work, he had a great time talking to people.

“He liked to engage with people, and people like to engage with him too,” said Winkelman.

After that visit, he told Winkelman he’d come around on the Dental Health Aide Therapist issue.

“I shook his hand at the end before he got on the plane. And I go: ‘Hey, how do you think the visit went?’ He goes: ‘It was great. You don't have to worry about me no more on this issue,’” said Winkelman.

Young also championed a 23-acre federal land transfer to YKHC. It’s the site where the new hospital sits today. When KYUK spoke to Winkelman, he was headed out to Washington D.C. on other businesses. But he had also intended to use the opportunity to invite Young to the ribbon cutting ceremony.

“I was just gonna stop by his office. I have some invitations and I was gonna give him an invitation. And he's always good for a good story too,” said Winkelman.

Former Y-K Delta state representative Mary Peltola was born into being a friend to Young. It was her father, Ward, and her mother, Elizabeth, who brought him to the villages. She said that his presence in her life made politics feel accessible.

“My mom campaigned for him out here when she was pregnant with me. Just having that in your background, it makes politicians and politics and public policy seem very close,” said Mary.

Mary pointed out one important project that Young was involved in in the Y-K Delta. That would be airport infrastructure.

“We have very top-of-the-line airports and transportation facilities entirely because of Don Young's experience, and all of his working relationships, and just securing wins for Alaska. It's like, what didn't he work on?” said Mary.

Winkelman and Mary both said that they hope the next legislator puts in as much work as Young did in the Y-K Delta. And Mary said that she hopes the next representative is even more representative of the region than Young was.

“He did say that he hoped that his successor would be an Alaska Native, because it should be. I completely agree with him. I think it's definitely time that an Alaska Native person had a role like that,” said Mary.

Young’s replacement will inherit some of the same Alaska issues that Young was working on. Young had several pieces of legislation important to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta outstanding. One is his version of the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. According to Mary, the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission was more inclined to support California Rep. Jared Huffman’s reauthorization, which contains two proposed seats for Tribes on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, while Young’s did not. Huffman’s office said that the two were in talks to try to compromise on their bills up until his passing. His office said that it has not yet decided how to incorporate Young’s wishes into the final reauthorization bill.

Olivia was a News Reporter for KYUK from 2020-2022.
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