One of Alaska's historic heroes was born on Independence Day 1911 in Petersburg. As a result, February 16 is a state-recognized holiday. It is time the heroine be recognized as widely as the day is.
Elizabeth Peratrovich Day is more than a "Native" holiday. It is a day for all people to reaffirm belief in the U.S. Constitution, its resulting Bill of Rights and in democracy itself. Democracy is more than a government by the people. It relies on the principles of social equality and respect for the individual within all communities.
Alaska is unique in the fact that the state has numerous indigenous populations that hold invaluable knowledge of what was generations before written history. How has this knowledge been treated among those whose roots are somewhere else? If we were to put that question through the test of "democracy", the state of Alaska would fail miserably.
In 1991, I did the research for Tlingit-Haida Central Council that resulted in the booklet, "A recollection of Civil Rights Leader Elizabeth Peratrovich 1911-1958." That research took me to several people who were present that cold-hearted day of Feb. 16, 1945, in the now-named "Elizabeth Peratrovich Gallery" at the territorial capitol. These witnesses were primarily Natives who were crammed into that gallery, both doors open, some standing on chairs in the back so they could see, many still in the hallway.
Tears fell and sobs could be heard as the Anti-Discrimination Bill of 1945 was debated on the Senate floor. One senator who violently opposed the bill asked, "Who are these people barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with 5,000 years of recorded history behind us?" And, another said, "I do not want to sit next to an Eskimo in a theater, they stink." The discussion was heated and ugly, the crowd booed.
The bad attitudes and racist words are confirmed in the Alaska Historic Library, Territorial Legislature's own records. Separating my feelings from the facts as I found them and put them on paper required me to use all of my mother's moral teachings.
With full awareness of my audience - descendants of those who spoke that day - who may read about this battle as I write it, my hands shaking from the ugliness that was being revealed, I typed out the story.
Elizabeth was not the only person who brought this battle to light. Gov. Ernest Gruening joined forces with the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood. The Grand Camp presidents were a married couple, Roy and Elizabeth Peratrovich, and all three led the battle in concert with leaders of the day. All the leaders had to be strong and maintain a straight course with adherence to duty, obedience to lawful authority, and belief in divine and human freedom.
Copies of the Elizabeth Peratrovich booklet were distributed to every school library in Alaska in 1991. How many teachers are even aware of that? Teachers can and do make all the difference in the classroom. They set the pace and influence attitude as much as parents do in the home. If teachers focus on those they consider "smart ones," overlooking those they see as less, how effective is that teacher - in the name of democracy? Comparatively, how about the teacher who sees all children as precious equals, capable in their own individual way?
It is the classroom that is charged with the obligation of teaching about our democratic government and society, about the U.S. Constitution and its full meaning, and about our Bill of Rights. It is in America's classrooms where our children learn how to apply these philosophies of American freedom that they will be called upon to protect with their lives, if need be.
Each of these things were hard-fought and developed by our best minds. If we are not living up to American democracy, freedom for all - then we are not doing our jobs as Americans.
Democracy and our Bill of Rights must be nurtured consciously and actively within Alaska's classroom. If it is not, then our leaders must become strong and maintain a straight course with adherence to duty, obedience to lawful authority, and belief in divine and human freedom.
Culp is a historic researcher based in Hoonah.
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