Annually, Alaskans celebrate Elizabeth Peratrovich Day on Feb. 16. As Americans reflect upon the violent political uprising in Egypt, we can be proud of many important accomplishments resulting from the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood (ANB/S.)
Husband and wife, Roy and Elizabeth Peratrovich served as concurrent Grand Camp ANB presidents in the 1940’s. Roy worked for the federal government, while Elizabeth raised their three children and volunteered for the ANB/S and other civic organizations.
Both were outraged at the blatant discrimination they encountered in Juneau, upon moving from the rural village of Klawock. Discriminatory signs were posted outside of local businesses, prohibited Natives from entering. Other civic organizations created to support military wives during wartime banned Native women from membership and benefits. They excluded them from the organization, although their husbands were actively fighting in World War II. This type of discrimination was not limited to Juneau; similar signs were used in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Nome businesses.
Grand Camp responded to local ANB/S chapters bringing anti-discrimination discussion to the forefront of political dialogue.
Roy initiated legal research between Grand Camp and territorial delegate Anthony Dimond stationed in Washington, D.C. Through their communication, Roy received copies of enacted anti-discrimination legislation from other states to protect its citizens. William Paul, Jr. was legal counsel to the ANB and offered a critical analysis of those bills and how they could be adapted for Alaska. Roy and Elizabeth influenced the crafting of the legislation, addressing discriminatory practices in Alaska. There were many others who advocated for the legislation, including Alaska Native territorial legislators Andrew Hope, Frank Johnson, William Paul, Jr., Frank Peratrovich, Gov. Ernest Gruening, and Judge James Wickersham. Gov. Gruening credited Elizabeth as the catalyst, influencing legislator’s view of the anti-discrimination bill as follows: “Had it not been for that beautiful Tlingit woman, Elizabeth Peratrovich, being on hand every day in the hallways, it would have never passed.”
The collective effort of Roy and Elizabeth to have the anti-discrimination bill enacted began in 1941 until 1945, when Gov. Gruening signed the bill into effect Feb. 8, 1945. Gov. Steve Cowper signed an Executive Proclamation on Feb. 16, 1989, recognized Elizabeth Peratrovich Day. This recognition of Elizabeth was led by Dorothy Webster, former ANS Grand Camp Secretary and past president of Douglas ANS.
There are many facets of this movement that are of particular pride to Alaskans. The 1945 anti-discrimination law protecting minorities was enacted in the territory of Alaska 20 years before the national civil rights law was passed. Outstanding civil rights leaders include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Reverends T.J. Jemison, John Duffy, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks. Each contributed greatly to the overall movement, seeking national legislation toward civil rights for to all Americans. Tragically, some of these selfless leaders paid for their involvement in the civil rights movement with their lives. It is the greatest irony that the leaders who advocated peaceful demonstrations were assassinated and died violently. Great Americans were lost forever from an assassin’s bullet. One is left wondering how our society could have been further shaped, had those leaders not been taken away from us.
The importance of knowing ones history is paramount. History instructs us on events that shaped our society and offers lessons to future generations. It is imperative that Alaskans are reminded that human rights are a cause that must be pursued vigilantly.
• Dabaluz is a tribally-enrolled citizen of the federally recognized Central Council/Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and past president of Glacier Valley ANS Camp No. 70. Her family has six generations of service to the ANB/S. Grand Camp ANB/S presidents Richard and Janice Jackson are the author’s brother-in-law and sister. They are the first couple to serve as concurrent Grand Camp presidents since Roy and Elizabeth Peratrovich held the same positions.