Elizabeth Peratrovich’s most famous quote is likely, “I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind them, of our Bill of Rights.” — a response to comments made by a territorial senator.
It seems Peratrovich had a way with words and a presence that would captivate people for long after the bill being debated was signed. When carolyn Brown saw the film “For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska,” she was moved. She felt the film, a documentary about civil rights activism in Alaska focusing on the efforts of Elizabeth Peratrovich, her husband, Roy, and members of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood, should be in every school and library in Alaska. Brown brought the idea to the Juneau chapter of the League of Women Voters and the Elizabeth Peratrovich Project was born.
Described as “a blend of documentary and drama, with re-enactments, new interviews and rare historic footage and photographs, this one hour film traces the remarkable story of Alaska’s civil rights movement in a series of victories for citizenship,” according to the film’s website alaskacivilrights.org. “The climax is the 1945 passage of the Anti-Discrimination Act, a groundbreaking law. ... Particularly inspiring is the remarkable poise of Tlingit activist Elizabeth Peratrovich, whose senate hearing testimony turned the tide in favor of the equal rights bill.”
The hour-long film, released in 2009 by Blueberry Productions, Inc., won the People’s Choice award in the American Indian Film Festival at Bellevue College and was a featured selection at the Alaska Native Film Festival, Indigenous World International Film Festival and the Denver Indigenous Film & Arts Festival It was also selected for the Native American Indian Film & Video Festival.
The film has been used by some educators as a tool for teaching about Alaska’s history and civil rights, but the Elizabeth Peratrovich Project makes the film more accessible to educators and provides a viewers’ guide, which organizers hope will prove a useful tool.
“I thought this was an incredible teaching thing that needs to be done throughout the state,” carolyn Brown said.
A steering committee was formed by the League of Women Voters’ Juneau chapter, including carolyn and George Brown, Cheryl Jebe and Marjorie Menzi; with Tlingit elder Marie Olson providing guidance, educator Brenda Campen creating the viewers’ guide, and Annie Calkins as the project evaluator and editor. The project was made possible in part by a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum and National Endowment for the Humanities, with matching funds provided by the Alaska League of Women Voters and financial support from Sealaska Heritage Institute. The film documentary and viewing guide were made available to all Southeast Alaska middle and high schools, as well as libraries, in December of 2013, after peer testing, focus group feedback and pilot runs in a number of Southeast Alaska communities. George Brown said the film would be available at 19 libraries and 28 middle and high schools.
Campen, who has taught social studies in the state for 33 years, often with a focus on Alaska History, said she was asked to work on the project because of her extensive teaching background, curriculum work and teacher education.
“My intention was to make it really usable in different kinds of school settings,” Campen said. “I kept coming back to, this has got to work in places like Tenakee, Craig, Kake, Sitka, Angoon — it has to resonate with students.”
Campen talked about the viewer’s guide as leading students through discussion “about the Peratroviches and others heavily involved in advocating,” adding that it also talks about “the broader implications and applications for looking at discrimination and prejudice.”
Her goal was to create something that could generate conversations that would be relevant in the various communities, as well as for different populations, including immigrant populations or LGBTQ.
“It’s about the subject and the important contribution of the Native people who pushed for this act,” Campen said. “But also larger — community, state, nation, world.”
Application in education
Graham Storey, a teacher at Thunder Mountain High School, has used the film when teaching American Government, tying it in with the nation’s civil rights era and civil war amendments to the constitution, he said. He’s also planning to use the film when he teaches Alaska history in the coming semester.
“Any time we as teachers can bring a subject closer to our students, through location, personal experiences, or even family relationships —one of (Elizabeth Peratrovich’s) relatives was a student at Thunder Mountain a couple of years ago — deeper learning occurs,” Storey said.
Juneau-Douglas High School teacher Kurt Dzinich said he’s shown the film in the past, but more often now discusses the topic when showing the film “Land is Ours” during the first semester.
“I believe that students relate to the discussion. Many students don’t know that Alaska was in the lead when it came to civil rights regarding women’s voting rights and segregation of schools. Also, first Native-led civil rights organization,” Dzinich said, adding that he’s “not sure if they find it applicable to modern issues, the main thing that I probably relate this to is when we discuss ANCSA and the issues of Corporation held land, and/or “Indian Country.”
Campen wanted the viewer’s guide to be something teachers could say, “Wow, this is a resource that I can use.”
She built it so that “for those who want a lot of assistance, here are questions, vocabulary, ways to start,” but its also applicable for educators who want to rely on it less — “they can pull as much as they want, change things around, use it just to spark ideas.”
Campen knows the life of a teacher and the expectations placed on them, so she wanted flexibility for teachers to use the film and guide in a number of ways.
“I hate to say it,” Campen said. “Things like this come across teachers’ desks frequently and end up in a drawer someplace unless they are given the freedom to adapt it to their particular situation. It’s valuable, no doubt about it, but it’s about how to create the room in their curriculum and provide the support for that.”
Storey shared more about how he discusses civil rights with high school students.
“At the high school level, as with many at the adult level, the trick to meaningful conversations is defining the issue as to what it is: a systemic action against a group with a defining characteristic —race, religion, etc. — that is conducted with at least the tacit approval of the government, local, state or federal, if not outright codified into law. Versus what it isn’t: the casual racial (or other defining characteristic) insult, the illegal denial of service corrected by existing law and community standards, or the unintentional slight that is corrected when attention is drawn to it,” Storey said.
With the film taking place in the 1940s, which may seem ancient to some, Storey introduces the students with current news stories. He said he still finds, every few years, stories about long-segregated high school proms finally integrating and said that, “Once teens can realize there are still high school dances where attendance is determined by skin color, then we can move on and discuss Alberta Schenck and the Nome theater and Elizabeth Peratrovich and the neighborhoods in Juneau where she was and was not allowed to live.”
Storey challenges his students at the end with the question — not for a grade, but for thought, he said — “Could you, when the situation demands it, step up and speak out?”
“If I’ve done a good job helping the class define the discussion, then the students are ready for that question and the introspection it requires,” Storey said. “If not, it’s back to the drawing board.”
Asking questions like that, applying the concepts to other issues and other groups, and asking bigger questions are goals Campen set out when working on the viewer’s guide.
“I don’t want them to shut down. I don’t want them to look at this and go, ‘That’s not my life, those aren’t my people,’” Campen said. “But it is you. Those are your people.”
The historical setting
Before the signing of the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 in Territorial Alaska, Alaska Natives suffered great injustice.
Longtime activist and labor organizer Olson — who said she started as early as 12 — described a Juneau with segregated schools and employment scarce for Alaska Natives. Signs on businesses would read “No Dogs or Natives.” Olson described having to stand in the corner at school for simply speaking her first language, Tlingit.
Olson met Elizabeth Peratrovich at the age of 12 and finds inspiration in civil rights and union activists from Alaska and beyond.
“I was in Juneau when the United Mine Workers of America first organized at the AJ Mine, when they had their first strike — that was frightening, they had a fight on the streets just about where the cold storage used to be,” Olson said. “I believe in unions because, being an American Indian, you might say we were at the bottom of the totem pole when it came to applying for a job and getting it. Racism was rampant in Alaska at the time, I remember that, but I couldn’t understand why.”
Ishmael Hope, the grandson of Alaska Native Civil Rights activist Andrew Hope, described “a community that’s been tormented, illegally undermined,” and noted that in many ways, the fight is not over. Issues of racism and rights were and are very real.
“’Don’t you feel good about how far you’ve gone?’” Hope said people often ask. “Which means, ‘Shouldn’t you stop talking? Stick with the status quo.’”
Prejudice and racism didn’t die out with laws like the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945, and Hope is not alone in pointing out that offering protection under the law doesn’t restore all the rights taken from Native Alaskans with colonization, nor does it solve many other, less tangible problems stemming from the treatment of Alaska Natives.
“We could get behind having people feel comfortable in a restaurant, feeling safe in a business,” Hope said, but the issues he cites today tend to make some people uncomfortable.
A topic Hope called “equally relevant, in cases even more relevant” is aboriginal land rights.
“People had a legal claim to the land. They still do,” Hope said. “A legal claim to ancient hunting and fishing rights — to continue practicing their ancient, god-given culture.”
Hope explained that he’s “not... advocating for anything but sort of practical, reasonable, legal goals when I’m talking about that.”
Looking at some of the leaps forward — Olson cited the success of scholarship program PITAAS, which helped to educate and boost the careers of Alaska Native teachers and administrators — still brings reminders of how far is left to go. Olson listed a handful of Alaska Native administrators in the Juneau School District and the University of Alaska, as well as Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages Lance Twitchell, but said she’d like to see more. And seeing more success doesn’t apply only to the field of education. Olson looks forward to greater success overall.
The woman, the symbol
For many, Elizabeth Peratrovich is the face of Alaska Native civil rights.
Peratrovich was one of many activists who worked tirelessly for civil rights in Alaska. “Every February the schools are talking about Elizabeth Peratrovich,” Olson said. “Most of the students are quite familiar now with what she’s accomplished.”
She said the Peratroviches “believed in human rights, and they believed in equality, and they believed in verbalizing their issues. They were not afraid to speak up — and you can’t afford to be.”
Hope had praise for Elizabeth Peratrovich as well, calling her “one of the most beautiful heroes that any community could proudly and beautifully embrace, she was a great, great hero.”
But some who spoke up, and whose contributions were just as great or greater, Hope said, were not as well-received outside the Alaska Native community, “leaders who were more inclined toward Tlingit language and values.” Hope added that it made them “more obscure to those who didn’t understand Tlingit culture. Less politically safe, too.”
Hope urges the community not to forget William Paul Sr., Frank Johnson, Louis Paul, Helen Sanderson, Amy Hallingstad, Peter Simpson, Andrew Hope (Hope's grandfather), and hundreds and hundreds of others. Their histories live more in family stories, while Peratrovich’s is widely known.
“I talked to a woman who is Pueblo, in Santa Fe, N.M., and she said, ‘I thank Elizabeth Peratrovich. She’s how I have my rights.’ It’s traveled far in the Native community all over,” Hope said. But added that, “If you really know and take some time to understand who did what, there should be a William Paul Week. There should be a Frank Johnson Building. There should be a Roy Peratrovich Place.”
Hope also questioned whether the “values of putting one person so high above everyone else” was something Elizabeth Peratrovich herself would embrace.
“I’m all for proper recognition of individuals, individual accomplishments, that’s great — as long as there’s a nuanced understanding of what those accomplishments were.”
Whether viewed as a symbol of the fight or as one individual among hundreds of activists whose words resounded through Alaska’s history, the legacy of Elizabeth Peratrovich and of the civil rights activism of Alaska Natives reaches far beyond state borders and should reach beyond the lifespans of those who fought so fervently for change. The goal of the Elizabeth Peratrovich Project is to keep the history fresh and civil rights topics on the tongues of community members young and old.