It took a long time. That journey was hard and is not over. In 1867, The United States purchased the Alaska Territory from Russia. Ushering into the new frontier were the hopes of expansion and the promise of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights for Americans in this new territory. That Constitution and that Bill of Rights did not apply to Alaska Natives.
The work of Civil Rights for Alaska Natives began to have a focus in 1941 — 23 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovich began to champion a petition to ban the “No Natives Allowed” and “No Dogs — No Natives” signs commonly posted at public accommodations. Discrimination was a part of the “Alaska way of life”. That effort became known as the Anti-Discrimination Act. That act was presented to the Alaska Legislature in 1943 and was defeated.
Here enters a very powerful history story.
Elizabeth Peratrovich was born in 1911 in Petersburg into the Raven moiety of the Tlingit Nation. She was adopted as a young child by Andrew and Mary Wanamaker. Elizabeth grew up in Petersburg and Ketchikan and attended Sheldon Jackson College as well as the Western College of Education in Bellingham, Wash. Elizabeth married Roy Peratrovich Sr. in 1931. Their work and lives took them to Nova Scotia, Colorado, Oklahoma and back to Alaska. The continued and on-going discrimination that they experienced, knew, and understood for themselves and the Alaska Native people had to be challenged. That first defeat in 1943 did not deter the Peratrovich couple. Information, empowerment, and courage brought in the Alaska Native Sisterhood, the Alaska Native Brotherhood, and Gov. Ernest Gruening.
In 1945, the Anti-Discrimination Act was again before the Legislature. This time, the discussions were held within the Territorial Senate where they met as a Committee of the Whole to determine the fate of this legislation. Passion was strong and emotions were intense. Sen. Allen Shattuck opposed the bill and offered this statement, “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites, with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?” Others opined: “The bill would aggravate the already hard feelings between Natives and whites.” “The bill is unnecessary.” “The real answer is in the separation of the races.”
Elizabeth was the final speaker for the day. Among her remarks, these were her historical words, “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.” At the conclusion, she condemned the men’s “superior race” attitude.
Her comments were met with thunderous applause and the Senate passed the Alaska Civil Rights Act by a vote of 11 to 5.
That was only a part of the beginning. Forty long years later, the Alaska Legislature established Feb. 16 as “The Annual Elizabeth Peratrovich Day” to memorialize the contribution of Elizabeth Peratrovich for her courageous and unceasing efforts to eliminate discrimination and to bring about equal rights in Alaska.
Yes, Elizabeth Peratrovich was one powerful woman and a brave one at that. She had the intense help and work of Roy Peratrovich, the Alaska Native Sisterhood, the Alaska Native Brotherhood, and Gruening for support. She had to begin somewhere.
So — what does this mean today? To quote Wanda Culp from the Juneau Empire in 2004, “Elizabeth Peratrovich Day is more than a Native holiday. It is a day for all people to reaffirm belief in the U.S. Constitution, its resulting Bill of Rights and in democracy itself. Democracy is more than a government by the people. It relies on the principles of social equality and respect for the individual within all communities.”
How can we all join in this celebration of Elizabeth Peratrovich Day?
At 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, there will be a graveside memorial at Evergreen Cemetery where the Peratrovich’s are buried. At 1:30 p.m. there will be a reception and student presentations at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center. At 3 p.m. there will be a showing of the documentary film, “For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska” at the JACC. This film shares the history of the Peratrovich legacy.
There is no charge for participation in any of these celebration and memorial events. These activities have been developed in collaboration with the Alaska Native Sisterhood Camps 2 and 70 and the League of Women Voters Juneau.
Elizabeth Peratrovich Day is a part of our Alaska history. We can be further empowered to participate in democracy and to work for social equality and respect for all in our communities. We hope you will join us.
• Brown is president of the Juneau chapter of the League of Women Voters.