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'Against the grain': Juneau honors Elizabeth Peratrovich

A celebration of her work and life was held Sunday

Posted: February 17, 2014 - 12:02am
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A memorial to Elizabeth Peratovich is shown on the Thunder Mountain High School stage in celebration of the late civil rights leader on Sunday, Feb. 16.   CHARLES L. WESTMORELAND | JUNEAU EMPIRE
CHARLES L. WESTMORELAND | JUNEAU EMPIRE
A memorial to Elizabeth Peratovich is shown on the Thunder Mountain High School stage in celebration of the late civil rights leader on Sunday, Feb. 16.

If it hadn’t been for the work of Elizabeth Peratrovich, Byron Mallott might not have stood where he did Sunday afternoon, he said, addressing Juneau residents at a celebration of Peratrovich’s life.

It is because of her activism that “a Tlingit man might stand as a candidate for the governor of Alaska,” Mallott said to a burst of applause from the crowd in the Thunder Mountain High School auditorium.

Gubernatorial candidate Mallott was the keynote speaker at Sunday’s Elizabeth Peratrovich Day event, emceed by Rep. Cathy Muñoz, which featured speeches by community members and artistic works by Juneau students.

Peratrovich worked tirelessly for equality for Alaska Natives, eventually spurring the passage of the then-territory’s Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945. Elizabeth Peratrovich Day celebrates the anniversary of the Legislature’s signing of the act.

“Banning discrimination was a step toward what was to come,” Mallott said in his speech. “But they (Peratrovich and her husband, Roy) knew that it was a long, long road ahead.”

He said Peratrovich represented “the face of a generation.”

“A generation that had endured, had suffered, had been humiliated,” he said. “To be who you were as Native people was nowhere in the mantra, beliefs or values of the government or people of Alaska.”

Thunder Mountain High School drama teacher Barbara Jo Maier’s acting class presented an original work by Maier that encapsulated some of the oppression suffered by the Peratroviches, and other Native people, that led to their activism.

The piece showed the Peratroviches unable to purchase a home, go to a movie theater when they wanted to or get their hair cut where they wanted to.

“A sign in black letters on a white background: ‘No Natives. No dogs,’” one student read onstage during the performance.

Maier said she was given a script based on Peratrovich’s famous speech to the Legislature, but because nobody knows for sure exactly what she said that day, Maier decided to take the words and put a fresh spin on it. Often, she said, the only thing Alaska students learn about Peratrovich is her speech, “so I didn’t want to put the focus there,” she said.

“We don’t know what the day is about, we don’t know what the history is, so I wanted to set the context with performance,” Maier said.

Also at the event, the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood local camps presented three awards to Alaska’s current-day activists.

ANB Camp 70 Secretary Eric Morrison presented the first-ever Floyd M. Kookesh Award to Kookesh’s family. Kookesh, who passed away near the end of 2013, was a subsistence fishery activist and an ANB member.

ANB Grand President Bill Martin presented the family with a bear carving, which he said always reminded him of Kookesh.

“Have confidence and faith that the spirit of the brown bear is always looking after you,” Martin said to them.

The Mildred Hotch Sparks Annual Incentive Award was presented to ANS Camp 2 member Carol Brady and Camp 70 member Andrea Cesar. The special sash goes to ANS members who have made a big impact on the community.

“When I think about staying home or being tired, I think, ‘Nope, we’ve got to do this,’” Cesar said as she accepted the sash.

Juneau Black Awareness Association President Sherry Patterson also addressed the crowd. As a woman of color, she said, “I take this day very personally.”

She said she had a challenge for the audience, based on her research of Peratrovich, who, Patterson said, always stood up for what she believed was right, even amongst harsh criticism and racism: “What do you see that’s not right? May I challenge you to do something? May I challenge you to say something?”

“Whoever you are and whatever may challenge you, it is okay to stand up for yourself,” Patterson said. “It is okay to go against the grain.”

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com.

Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.

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