Peratrovich a symbol of action, equality

Posted: Thursday, February 17, 2011

Wednesday was a day of celebration and appreciation for a woman who greatly impacted equal rights for Alaska Natives.

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MICHAEL PENN / Juneau Empire
MICHAEL PENN / Juneau Empire

The Alaska Native Sisterhood camps 2 and 70 and League of Women Voters hosted a celebration for Elizabeth Peratrovich Day on Wednesday, honoring the woman who serves as the symbol for Alaska Native equality and rights. The day was adopted as a state holiday in 1988.

In the chilly weather, people gathered at the Peratrovich’s gravestones in Evergreen Cemetery.

A celebration and reflection of the civil rights journey continued at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center with John Smith, an Alaska Native studies program teacher at Riverbend Elementary, leading two fourth-grade classes in traditional dances.

The students read a timeline of how civil rights for Alaska Natives developed, including the formation of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, followed a year later by the Alaska Native Sisterhood and following through Peratrovich’s involvement.

A fifth-grade student, portraying Peratrovich, recited a speech the woman gave to the Alaska Territorial Senate as she argued for legislation ensuring Native civil rights.

That effort culminated with the Territorial Senate debating a bill in 1945 to outlaw racial discrimination in public places.

The Senate was not friendly toward the bill, with senators saying the bill was unnecessary, it would only make tensions between Alaska Natives and whites worse, it would not stop discrimination and Natives wanted to be left alone so there should be an increase in racial division.

Sen. Allen Shattuck was opposed to the measure, saying “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites, with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?”

Peratrovich spoke up.

“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,” she said.

She gave testimony of discrimination and hatred against Alaska Natives and her family’s goals to be able to live in decent housing, and have their children attend school along with her neighbor’s.

She also addressed the desire of a senator to not pass the bill because it wouldn’t stop discrimination.

“Have you eliminated larceny or murder by passing a law against it?” Peratrovich asked. “No law will eliminate crimes but, at least you as legislators, can assert to the world that you recognize the evil of the present situation and speak your intent to help us overcome discrimination.”

The senators passed the bill 11-5 and it was approved by Gov. Ernest Gruening — nearly 20 years before the Federal Civil Rights Act.

Smith said the fourth-graders have been researching their bloodlines and are proud of their heritages.

“They’re also learning to work together,” he said. “We want to teach these kids that even though we’re all different, we can work together.”

Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School Student Elija Marx also told of Peratrovich’s history and her testimony.

“We as Native people will never forget what these two wonderful people did for our civil rights,” he concluded. “Gunalch┐esh.”

Freda Westman, president of ANS Camp 70, said she is proud to be a member of the ANS because they are called upon for the betterment of Alaska Natives.

She appreciates the Peratroviches for what they did and the example they provide.

“Everyone of us can make a difference,” she said. “Every single one of us can stand up for what is right, that is what we’re called to do.”

The Peratroviches, Elizabeth and her husband Roy, moved to Juneau in 1941. When they arrived, signs were commonly seen on storefront business signs saying “No Natives Allowed” or “No Natives, No Dogs.” Others boasted of “all white” employees.

Both Peratroviches were camp presidents of the Alaska Native Sisterhood and Alaska Native Brotherhood at the time.

Westman said despite the accomplishments of the couple, they were ordinary people. They simply wanted to live in nice housing, have their children go to public schools, be able to access the same goods and services as their neighbors.

Edward Thomas, president of the Central Council Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, said in looking at what’s happening in Egypt, he realizes how wise Tlingit and Haida leaders were in the 1940s. He said they recognized a need to fight for their rights, however they did it in a peaceful manner.

“How thoughtful our people were,” he said. “The celebration of Elizabeth Peratrovich Day is appropriate. It collaborates many years of work of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood.”

Marjorie Menzi, board member for the League of Women Voters, showed a film created about the movement called “For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska,” which features many Juneauites.

Menzi said a copy is at the public library available for checkout.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at

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