Remembering Buzzy Peltola: A Native leader and a trailblazer
When Mary Peltola ran for Congress, her husband, Gene “Buzzy” Peltola Jr., often could be found behind the scenes, keeping an attentive eye on his wife, beaming proudly as supporters cheered her on.
As she took her oath of office to become the first Alaska Native woman to serve in Congress, he stood beside her, wearing a hand sewn, black kuspuk, holding the Bible.
For many Alaskans, the couple seemed to embody the Peltola campaign slogan – fish, freedom and family -- an image that was shattered in Tuesday’s plane crash near St. Mary’s on the Yukon river. Peltola died after the Piper Super Cub he was piloting crashed into mountainous terrain.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Peltola was flying alone and had just dropped off a hunter and some equipment nearby. Alaska State Troopers say there were two hunters at the scene of the crash who provided medical care, but Peltola died before help arrived. He was 57.
Since Rep. Mary Peltola’s chief of staff, Antone McParland, announced that her husband had died, social media sites have been inundated with condolences.
“We are devastated to share that Mary’s husband, Eugene Peltola Jr.—'Buzzy’ to all of us who knew and loved him--passed away earlier this morning following a plane accident in Alaska.”
“He was one of those people that was obnoxiously good at everything. He had a delightful sense of humor that lightened the darkest moments. He was definitely the cook in the family. And family was most important to him. He was completely devoted to his parents, kids, siblings, extended family, and friends – and he simply adored Mary. We are heartbroken for the family’s loss.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski posted this message:
“I am shocked, saddened and truly beyond words to express my grief at the loss of Gene Peltola Jr. Anyone who met Buzzy felt his warmth, generosity and charm. It was easy to see why so many Alaskans called him a friend, and how he was so loved by his family.”
Message after message remembered Peltola as a longtime leader in fish and wildlife management. Peltola spent more than three decades working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, eventually to become the first Alaska Native manager of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Later, he served as regional director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Alaska.
Throughout his public service career, there was a common thread -- his passion for hunting, fishing, the subsistence lifestyle and giving Alaska Natives more control in the management of their fish and game.
LaMont Albertson, one of the founders of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, shared that passion with Peltola, who he says had a real talent for navigating the state and federal bureaucracy.
“Everybody liked him. I can’t think of a single person who disliked him, except the people that were above him,” said Albertson, who believes Peltola was one of the first federal wildlife managers to successfully promote "the Yup’ik way of doing things on the Kuskokwim River."
Albertson says he admired Peltola, because he wasn't afraid to push back against his bosses, when they made decisions that hurt the ability of Alaska Natives to harvest wild foods. But he said Peltola was also charming and persuasive – and sometimes was able to convince wildlife managers to see things from the Native perspective.
“It's just so hard to find the words to describe his intelligence and how intuitive the guy was,” Albertson said. “He was assertive, and he knew how to say the right things at the right time.”
“He was the most truthful guy I’ve ever known” Albertson said. “And he never gave up.”
Albertson says Peltola used his Yup'ik and Lingít heritage to bridge two worlds and help his people better understand how to deal with federal wildlife managers.
“He’d say,‘You’ve got to try to understand those guys in Anchorage,” Albertson said. “They were just being yanked around by guys in D.C.’”
Albertson believes Peltola got some of his leadership skills from his father, Gene Peltola Sr., a prominent Native leader, who served as president of the Association of Village Council Presidents and CEO of the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation. Albertson says his son, Buzzy, grew up understanding power and how to use it wisely, which made him the perfect political partner for his wife, Mary.
Albertson says the two served on the Bethel City Council together, about the time they became a couple and later married, combining children from previous marriages to build a family.
He remembers how happy the community was to see them together. “They were at the top of their professions, both smart and respected people,” Albertson said, “a dream team.”
Albertson, who will soon turn 80, has known both Mary and Buzzy Peltola since they were kids, but a recent gift from the two is a memory he says will stay with him forever. After suffering a stroke, they sent him a care package.
“They sent me subsistence foods, so I could have the right foods to eat while I was recovering from my stroke,” he said. “I’ll never forget Gene and Mary for doing that.”
The family posted an announcement on Facebook that memorial services for Gene Peltola, Jr. will be held in Bethel on Saturday, September 16 at the Immaculate Conception Church at 2:00 p.m. A celebration of life potluck will follow at 5:00 p.m. at the Yup’ik Cultural Center