Juneau to honor civil rights leader

ANS camps will host annual celebration for Elizabeth Peratrovich

Posted: Sunday, February 15, 2009

Juneau residents will gather Monday to honor the late civil rights activist Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich, a woman who helped bring about equal treatment of Native Alaskans nearly 20 years before the Civil Rights Act was signed.

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Courtesy Of The Alaska State Library
Courtesy Of The Alaska State Library

Elders and youth alike will honor Peratrovich at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall in Juneau. The Alaska Native Sisterhood Camps 2 and 70 organized the program and reception, slated to start at 4 p.m.

"We hope members of the community will turn out for this celebration," said event organizer Janet Dick. "Elizabeth Peratrovich Day honors Elizabeth and so many others in the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood who helped change Alaska for the better."

It was in 1988 that the Legislature designated Feb. 16 - the anniversary of the signing of Alaska's Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 - as a holiday honoring Peratrovich. She was instrumental in securing passage of the bill that outlawed racial discrimination in Alaska. The Alaska Act pre-dated passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 by 19 years.

"We forget that prior to passage of Alaska's Anti-Discrimination Act, Alaska Natives were barred entry to certain businesses, went to segregated schools, had to sit in separate seating areas in movie theaters and were generally treated as second class citizens," said Micalyne Kunz-McGhee, president of Camp 2. "Elizabeth Peratrovich's contribution to Alaska civil rights is a day all Alaskans should celebrate."

It was her speech more than 60 years ago to lawmakers on the Senate floor that is credited for the signing of the act.

"I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights," she said. "When my husband and I came to Juneau and sought a home in a nice neighborhood where our children could play happily with our neighbors' children, we found such a house and had arranged to lease it. When the owners learned that we were Indians, they said 'no.' Would we be compelled to live in the slums?"

Peratrovich's speech was met with applause, followed by an 11-5 passing of the bill, the first of it's kind passed since the Civil War.

Then-Gov. Ernest Gruening said of Peratrovich: "Had it not been for that beautiful Tlingit woman, Elizabeth Peratrovich, being on hand every day in the hallways, it would have never passed."

Sen. Albert Kookesh will read the original resolution that created the holiday during Monday's celebration, and Ricky Tagaban will speak on the history of Peratrovich. The Daaxaat Kanadaa Dancers, from Angoon, also will perform.

Students from Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School and Harborview and Gastineau elementary schools will perform songs and a poem. Dzantik'i Heeni Indian Studies Cultural paraeducator Victoria Johnson will help students recite the winning poem from Goldbelt Inc.'s recent contest.

"It's always a great honor to have any children present or performing for Elizabeth Peratrovich because of her anti-discrimination (efforts) with Alaska legislators," Dick said. "And to see children doing this today is very important because we want to lift all our children up and be very proud of what they do and accomplish."

In addition to student performances, Andrea Ebona-Michel, Elderly Services coordinator for Tlingit & Haida, will present a posthumous award to the family of Emma G. Widmark to commemorate the National Hero Award presented in November 2008 by the National Resource Centers on Native American Aging and the Administration on Aging.

The National Hero Award recognized Widmark, who died July 7, 2008, for extraordinary service to her community. Recipients were chosen from across the United States for their dedication to helping Native elders solve local problems, share cultural traditions and build stronger communities.

Doloresa Cadiente will present the recently-resurrected Mildred Sparks Award to an ANS Camp 2 member, and Andy Ebona will present the Andrew Hope Award to an ANB Camp 2 member. These awards are presented in recognition of extraordinary service to the community and to ANS or ANB.

"People who receive the Mildred Sparks Award are people who have dedicated many years to helping the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood in various aspects of the camps, the state and the people," Kunz-McGhee said. "It's certainly one of the highest awards to be given."

Kunz-McGhee considers activists Hope and Sparks to be on a par with Elizabeth Peratrovich.

"They've done so much for the community and the people," she said. "They were able to see clearly what the people needed and what needed to be done in their time. That was a gift. They were able to make people understand that fact. We need to be aware of our culture down the line and what's going to become of our state. They were very important people as well."

For more information on Monday's program, call event organizer Janet Dick at 209-6330.

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at 523-2272 or kimberly.andree@juneauempire.com.

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