Bethel remembers Mary Ciuniq Pete

Mary Pete fiercely protected subsistence practices. (Photo credit Mary Sattler Peltola)

Mary Ciuniq Pete died November 17 at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. She succumbed to complications from ovarian cancer.

She left behind a huge legacy in Alaska as she worked to protect subsistence, and then later as the Director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Kuskokwim Campus.

KYUK spoke with several friends and former colleagues who remembered the contributions that Pete made to Alaska, and to the lives of everyone in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Pete was born in Stebbins, Alaska, in April of 1957. She was raised practicing her Yup’ik values, which informed every part of her later career, including as an educator. Pete went on to earn both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1984.

Pete clearly valued education, and she strongly advocated for her students to succeed, especially her Indigenous ones. She was the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Kuskokwim Campus Director from 2005 until her death. Her colleague at KuC, Diane McEachern, said that Pete knew when and when not to compromise.

“The times she would not compromise were usually around something important to Indigenous education or the Indigenous students, and I appreciated that. She wasn’t wishy-washy at all,” McEachern said.

Pete honed those negotiating skills over the years while serving in a high-profile role in then-Governor Tony Knowles’ administration. Her substantial knowledge about subsistence caught Knowles’ eye, and he chose her to direct the Subsistence Division at the Department of Fish and Game, a role she held from 1996 to 2005. She was the first Alaska Native woman to do so which was, and still is, a huge achievement.

Knowles remembered how Pete worked to protect the fisheries during a failure of the king salmon run on the Yukon River, and how she was later part of the Alaska delegation negotiating rules for managing the river under the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada.

“It was a really difficult time because there had to be closures, and that included subsistence closures. But because of the way she handled this: she was science-based, she communicated well with the communities, and she got their understanding and support, and that is very difficult when there are tough times,” Knowles said. “Secondly, on the Yukon River there’s always a struggle to come to agreement with Canadians on the treaty that we had with them for many years, but had really not been in effect for a really long time. And I asked if she would be a lead negotiator with the Alaska team and once again, conservation was the first, protect the resource, and that’s not really necessarily the way Canadians have handled their salmon. But we were able to come to an agreement for many years, and it went a long way to providing first for the conservation of the resources, and secondly the first priority of the taking of any salmon for harvest for subsistence use.”

Pete’s reputation spread to the White House. Then-President Barack Obama named her to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission in 2010. She also held leadership roles on the local level. One of her most prominent was her position on the board of the Tundra Women’s Coalition (TWC) during the 1980s. TWC advocates for domestic violence and sexual abuse victims. She also served on the state Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. Michelle DeWitt led TWC for more than a decade, and gave Mary an award for her service.

“If there was a perspective that was needed, or you wanted to run an idea by someone, Mary was the person to turn to in those situations. The thing I appreciate the most about Mary is she is a strong and fierce leader,” DeWitt said.

And for some Alaska Native women, Pete will be remembered as a mentor. Tiffany Zulkosky, who successfully kept her seat in the state House representing District 38 this year, said that Mary helped her navigate the tricky waters of standing up for herself as an Alaska Native woman in public service.

“I remember an incident where I had taken an opportunity to speak truth to power and was talking to her about that incident, and letting her know just about the context of the situation and that my voice was shaking somewhat when I was making my statement, and she told me that there was a time when she was younger and she was in a similar situation. She said, ‘My voice would shake, but my message never wavered,'” Zulkosky said.

Many people remembered her deep, loving relationship with her life partner and husband Hubert Angaiak, and her vibrant love for berry picking. For Pete, there were never enough berries, and the best way to pick them was with friends and family. Bethel resident Mary Sattler Peltola had this to say about Pete’s relationship to her husband:

“They both have such a great sense of humor, and both have had such a great admiration for each other,” Peltola said.

Each person KYUK talked to recommended several more until dozens were on the list. The list and the memories could go on and on. Mary Pete is survived by her mother, Jeanette Pete, her husband, Hubert Angiaik, and her two adopted sons, Conor and Chase.