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Hundreds honor civil rights leader

Monday marked anniversary of the passing of Alaska's Anti-Discrimination Act in 1945

Posted: Tuesday, February 17, 2009

While many in the capital observed President's Day on Monday by taking the day off of work, a standing-room only crowd packed the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall to honor Alaska Native civil rights leader Elizabeth Peratrovich with songs, dances and speeches.

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David J. Sheakley / Juneau Empire
David J. Sheakley / Juneau Empire

Monday marked the anniversary of the passing of the Anti-Discrimination Act in 1945 by the Alaska Territorial Legislature that Peratrovich passionately and memorably testified in favor of. The state Legislature established the date as "Elizabeth Peratrovich Day" in 1988.

A diverse cross section of the community attended Juneau's event, with Native elders and children alike speaking before the large crowd.

Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, had been scheduled to read a resolution from the Legislature that he wrote in honor of Peratrovich, but he was unable to attend. Rep. Beth Kertulla, D-Juneau, a member of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, filled in for Kookesh. She said the community has come along way since the Anti-Discrimination Act was signed into law.

"Growing up here in Juneau in my era, we didn't not hear the songs nor see the dances," she said. "Over the years with great pride I have seen this community come together ... I have seen what Elizabeth Peratrovich, I believe, dreamed about and that is a complete integration of our home, of our state and our ever-striving towards nondiscrimination."

And while there have been strides made there is still more to be done in Alaska, Kertulla said.

"I believe if she were here today, Elizabeth Peratrovich would say 'you have done well, there's more to do, but this is a very, very good place and a good time to live.'"

Peratrovich was born on July 4, 1911, and grew up in Petersburg and Ketchikan. She married Roy Peratrovich in 1931 and lived in Klawock for a decade before moving to Juneau when he became the Grand President of the ANB and she served as the Grand President for ANS.

"When Elizabeth, Roy and her three children moved to Juneau in 1941 they were amazed at the open discrimination against Alaska Native people," Rick Tagaban told the crowd Monday. "There were signs in windows of restaurants and stores that said 'No Natives Allowed.' Native Alaskan children were not even allowed in public schools."

The couple would fight tirelessly for the passing of the Anti-Discrimination Act, which was defeated in the legislature in 1943 before passing in 1945, nearly two decades before the climax of the civil rights movement in the lower 48. She died Dec. 1, 1958 of cancer.

Students participating in the event highlighted how far Juneau has come since the act passed and emphasized the progress made in teaching the Native languages and cultures in the school district. Students from Gastineau Elementary School song a number of songs in Tlingit as well as one written in honor of Elizabeth Peratrovich. Teacher Jessica Chester said she is proud to get to speak the Tlingit language in the school with students and elders that volunteer their time.

"Our languages are now living in our schools," she said.

Winners of an essay contest at Dzantik'i Heeni marking the Anti-Discrimination Act and Elizabeth Peratrovich Day read their work to the crowd. Barbara Cadiente-Nelson, an administrator with the school district, said the students spent time researching the law and said it helps them better understand the hardships endured by their ancestors.

"It's all about informing them and helping them and guiding them to embrace who they are, to celebrate who they are," she said.

As a person that has gone through the school district, Cadiente-Nelson said she is happy to see the many educators in the school district putting effort into the language and culture programs in Juneau and all the people that have "fought this fight and will continue to fight this fight."

"This day is all about extending hands and acknowledging one another, lifting each other up in the interest of social justice," she said.

Monday's event also included performances by Native dance groups, including Yaaw Tei Yi as well as the Daaxaat Kanadaa Dancers.

* Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.



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