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U.S. Congress reaches a milestone in Indigenous representation

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of Calif., administers the House oath of office to Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, during a ceremonial swearing-in on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.
Jose Luis Magana
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AP
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of Calif., administers the House oath of office to Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, during a ceremonial swearing-in on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

Rep. Mary Peltola's election to the U.S. House of Representatives made history in several ways.

With her recent swearing-in, it became official for the first time in more than 230 years: A Native American, an Alaska Native and a Native Hawaiian are all members of the House — fully representing the United States' Indigenous people for the first time, according to Rep. Kaiali'i Kahele of Hawaii. Now, there are six Indigenous Americans who are representatives in the House.

Kahele shared this history-making moment on social media this week with a photograph of him, Peltola, and Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas (a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation).

Peltola, the first Alaska Native and woman elected to the House for Alaska, is taking over for Rep. Don Young, who died in March.

"It's a historic moment," Lani Teves, an associate professor at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa said.

From left to right: Reps. Kaialiʻi Kahele, Mary Peltola and Sharice Davids.
/ Congressman Kaialiʻi Kahele's Twitter
/
Congressman Kaialiʻi Kahele's Twitter
From left to right: Reps. Kaialiʻi Kahele, Mary Peltola and Sharice Davids.

Indigenous peoples in the United States have been disenfranchised on many levels throughout history, Teves told NPR.

"Having different Indigenous communities represented shows the growing power of Native people across the United States and across the world," she said.

Bringing more Indigenous representation to Congress has been slow-going over the years. Just four years ago, Davids and now-Interior Secretary Deb Haaland became the first two Native American women elected to Congress. Kahele is just the second Native Hawaiian to represent his home state.

Down the road, this representation can have a big impact on the political power of Indigenous communities in the U.S., Teves said.

"People need representation and young people need to see people that look like themselves, that come from their communities," she said.

Beyond that, she noted, having members who come from Indigenous communities can mean issues important to those communities — like climate change and violence against Native women — get more play in Congress.

"I think it represents just a growing movement of Indigenous resurgence and awareness of injustices and a desire to, not just make right on the past, but have our voices be heard," she said.

However, this level of representation may be short-lived. Peltola still needs to win re-election in November, and Kahele will wrap up his final term in Congress in 2023.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 19, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to Mary Peltola as the first "Native Alaskan" elected to the U.S. House for Alaska. In fact, she is the first Alaska Native — the term for a member of one of the state's Indigenous groups — elected to the U.S. House for Alaska. (The term "native Alaskan" refers to any individual born in Alaska.)
Jaclyn Diaz