Juneau honors Peratrovich, celebrates Native traditions

Gathering for civil rights leader draws more than 400 people to ANB Hall

Posted: Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Elizabeth Peratrovich silenced the floor of the Alaska Territorial Senate in 1945 when she shamed legislators into passing an anti-discrimination act.

Cecelia Kunz, who knew Peratrovich and worked with her in the Alaska Native Sisterhood, silenced an equally large crowd Monday night, including some lawmakers. But the attendees celebrating Peratrovich's life at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall were silenced with awe, rather than shame.

"They said lots of things about us, those lawmakers," said Kunz, who sat with Peratrovich in the Senate chambers when Peratrovich made her famous speech. "They called us savage. They called us all kinds of names. ... (Peratrovich) cried, and I cried along with her."

Kunz was honored with an Elizabeth Peratrovich Award at the annual celebration of Peratrovich's life. She barely whispered her thank-you speech from a wheelchair, a microphone held to her lips by one of her young relatives.

"I'm just so glad to take part in what's going on for this woman," she said. "She was important. A lot of things she said, they went over big."

More than 400 people packed the ANB Hall Monday evening to honor Peratrovich, recognize other influential leaders and celebrate Native culture, sustained for young Natives in part by immersion programs and dance groups at public schools.

"The focus of the night is education," said Emma Widmark, first vice president of ANS Camp 2 in Juneau. She organized the celebration with the help of about 30 volunteers.

"Education was a passion for Elizabeth Peratrovich," Widmark said. "She believed profoundly in education and she worked her life to provide educational opportunities for Native people."

Students from the Mendenhall River Community School and Riverbend Elementary School received a standing ovation for a dance they performed in Peratrovich's honor.

Harborview Elementary School students from the school's Tlingit immersion class sang a song they wrote about Peratrovich.

Tony Stevens, a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, read an essay he introduced as "quite funny Native humor." In it, history was reversed and Natives had forced white people to live on reservations and to attend boarding schools in which they could speak only Native languages.

"I think about how different our world would have played out this way," Stevens said after reading his essay.

"Elizabeth Peratrovich is the Martin Luther King of Natives, I guess you could call it," he said. "We need to all stick together. We're all Native. If you guys have something to say, don't be silent about it."

Sky Dunlap, a member of the Juneau-Douglas High School Early Scholars program, volunteered to help serve the meal at the celebration because she wanted to learn more about Peratrovich.

"I know my parents used to take me to Elizabeth Peratrovich dinners when I was young, but I don't remember much," she said.

Gatherings such as the annual Elizabeth Peratrovich dinner can be powerful experiences for Alaska Natives, said Ishmael Hope, whose mother taught him at a young age about the works of Elizabeth Peratrovich.

"It's everyone working together to do something," he said. "It's a partnership, and wherever there's a partnership things get strong."

• Christine Schmid can be reached at christine.schmid@juneauempire.com.

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