Mary Peltola, Executive Director of the Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, spoke with KYUK’s Christine Trudeau last week about the importance of maintaining a link to Yup’ik cultural values in her life. The former House District 38 Representative feels that keeping a positive outlook is especially important when facing potential challenges in the times ahead. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Christine Trudeau: Well, it’s the end of a long year; a lot of changes have taken place. What are you reflecting on this time of year?
Mary Peltola: Well, it’s nice to have a breather in the year, you know. A time where I don’t feel like I’m, you know, rushing out to check a net, or catch a flight, or get so many things done. It’s busy, but in a different way. So this is always a welcome time of year. I’m very thankful that it got cold. The weather changes have brought a lot of anxiety to people and I don’t think any of us who live on the Kuskokwim are, you know, immune to that anxiety of the river not freezing, or what break up is doing, or when fish start coming back. So it’s just different now with, it seems like everything is about two weeks later this year. Some of the migratory birds a couple weeks late, the salmon runs, the number of the species were a couple weeks late. I heard at the [Regional Advisory Counsel] meetings that hunters felt that maybe we should be looking at a later moose season with moose coming down to rut a couple weeks later in the year as well.
Trudeau: With that shift, what do you think in terms of looking ahead? What are you thinking about how to adapt?
Peltola: Well, I think one thing that we should all be thinking about is being less attached to the calendar dates and thinking more about, you know, just being ready when the species do come back, and focusing on the positive. That’s a very Yup’ik value, is not obsessing on negative thoughts or negative things, and trying to find the positive things, and trying to keep upbeat and work through challenges. Life is full of setbacks. It always has been, it always will be, and it’s just a matter of how we handle those setbacks and what our attitude is, and really try to make sure we have that attitude of abundance because, you know, we will be okay.
Trudeau: Is that something you’ve carried with you from an early age that was instilled through people around you?
Peltola: I think so. I hope so. I mean, certainly we all go through periods where we’re not positive or sunny, or it’s harder to see things in a positive way. But it’s definitely something I think that’s a universal value. I think that all human beings need to remember that. And I think that it’s something that our ancestors from a lot of cultures, our grandparents have really shared with us. I definitely saw that in my parents. I see that in my parents still is that attachment to being positive and seeing things in a positive way.
Trudeau: Is there a memory that you have or a story that you were told that helped instill that?
Peltola: You know, it’s funny, it’s kind of a longer story, but when I was in college I took a class called Current Native American Issues, and one of the sections in the class was talking about boarding schools. And so as part of that class we were required to write a paper, and I interviewed my mom about her boarding school experience. She went to Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon. And it was fascinating because the whole section we had learned on all the curriculum was 100 percent negative. There weren’t really any positive things in the lesson that was shared with us. When I interviewed my mom, there weren’t any negative things that she shared. And of course she has a different circumstance because she went as a high school student and not as an elementary student or, you know, really young. And her family dynamic lent itself to her being grateful that she was going to boarding school. All of her stories were so positive: flying in a small plane for the first time to Bethel, and the pilot, you know, trying to scare her, and everyone laughing about that and then getting on a larger plane to Anchorage and seeing things in the Anchorage area for the first time, and then getting on an even larger jet to go Oregon and seeing grass pastures and cows.
She talked about how when a student would get a care package with Native food, it was shared among the friends and relatives. And that was a really bonding experience for those that went to boarding school, and even if a student didn’t get a care package they were able to share in the students that did get one. She was grateful for the Protestant work ethic that she was taught at boarding school and it served her very well in her career, but it was very interesting for me to hear all of the stories that she had to share. She said that the first year she went she used a cardboard box for her luggage. And then the next year she went her brother had been working, and he saved up money to buy her two suitcases and she had those suitcases until just a couple years ago. Those were very precious things to her. But just wonderful stories of generosity and good things that came out of her boarding school experience. You know, that’s something that made a big impression on me.
Trudeau: And that was when you were in college, right?
Peltola: That is, yeah. That was in the 90s.
Trudeau: Was that around the time, or connected or related to your decision to get into politics? You were pretty young when you ran for the District 38 seat. How did that come about?
Peltola: The first time I ran, I was 22 and I did not win. It was a three-way race and I lost by 56 votes. But I really felt that I failed forward, because no one really thought that I had a chance at all. So the next time I ran I was 22, and when I served I was 25. So, that’s not terribly young . It’s young-ish, but it’s not crazy young. But I don’t think that that story particularly had an influence on my decision. My dad had run before me, in ’94, and I had seen and had accompanied him to village campaign trips and talking with journalists and things like that. He had worked in Juneau as a staff person in the 70s, and I had memories of that growing up. I think, you know, both of my parents keep up with current affairs and they’re both very interested in politics and policy, and so I think it was more a lot of different things that factored into that decision.
Trudeau: Yeah. If you were 18 again today, what would you recommend to youth today who are interested in getting involved politically, that might be passionate about one thing or another, whether it’s protecting salmon habitats or subsistence rights, things like that? What would you recommend to them? What would you have wanted to hear?
Peltola: One of the things that was a surprise to me that I learned, probably about four years into my tenure in the House, is that about every public policy change it takes about 10 years to make those things happen. If you look back at seatbelts, or concerns about smoking or drunk driving, all of those broad public policy changes took at least a decade to make a change within. I think that that’s a pretty good time frame to think of things in. I think a lot of large policy issues do take about 10 years to change public opinion on. I think for a young person 10 years sounds like an eternity, but I think my message would be to be patient and think of things in terms of stamina and not flaming out early. Just pace yourself and build relationships, because in Alaska you end up working with people many decades and memories are long. And it’s about establishing friendships and trust, and it could take 10 to 20 years to really see a change, to see the needle move on whatever issue it is that you’re passionate about.