Indian Country Today
About a hundred Alaskans gathered Monday at midday in Anchorage to celebrate the accomplishments of civil rights activist Elizabeth Peratrovich, Tlingit. In 1945 her testimony helped persuade legislators to adopt the nation’s first anti-discrimination law. She was grand president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood at the time. The sisterhood was an auxiliary to the Alaska Native Brotherhood, which was formed in Southeast Alaska in 1912 to fight for civil rights, equal education, and citizenship for Alaska Natives.
During the Alaska Territorial Legislature’s discussion of the anti-discrimination bill in 1945, Sen. Allen Shattuck of Fairbanks said: "Far from being brought closer together, which will result from this bill, the races should be kept further apart. Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?"
It was not uncommon in those days to see signs in stores and restaurants stating, “No Dogs or Indians Allowed.” Senators commented that the bill would create hard feelings between whites and Natives, while also declaring they didn’t want to have to sit next to Alaska Natives in the theater.
When it was her turn to speak, Elizabeth Peratrovich answered, "I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill or Rights.”
At Monday’s celebration, Elizabeth Peratrovich’s niece Tanya Gularte, Tlingit, told the audience she didn’t experience overt racism growing up, but her parents did. She said: “My mother went to Chemawa [Indian School] and was speaking her Tlingit language with her friends and the teachers or somebody there said, ‘You can’t speak your savage language.’ They had them kneel on a broomstick then hold their hands out to be slapped.”
“My father was Aleut and was living in Sitka and had a date with a girl and went to the theater. And the girl was white. She had to sit on one side of the theater and he sat on the other side,” Gularte said. “So you can see how Aunt Elizabeth [Peratrovich] and Uncle Roy felt that this was not right and devoted their lives to helping erase discrimination.”
One of the organizers of Monday’s celebration, Tasha Hotch, Tlingit, is president of local Alaska Native Sisterhood Camp 87. She said Peratrovich is a good role model for young people. She had young people give several presentations during the ceremony. A middle-schooler was the emcee.
“Civil rights and activism is very much alive today and it really starts with our young people,” Hotch said. “I like to remind people that there's still a lot of work to be done, and the way that we achieve our goals is by working together and really seeing how we can build partnerships and allies to get the change that we would want to see."
Hotch said enactment of the anti-discrimination law didn’t come quickly or easily. “It was initially voted on in 1943 and it didn't pass. It was a tie vote, which is not a majority, so it didn't pass,” Hotch said. “And instead of whining around about it, the [Alaska Native Brotherhood] and [Alaska Native Sisterhood] went, ‘What do we need to change with our approach?’ And they got more people out to vote. They got people elected that would represent their interests. So then it was taken to a revote and passed.”
“Elizabeth Peratrovich and [her husband] Roy played a huge part in that, but it was a really a collective effort and changed the way that we see Natives and minorities in the political realm,” Hotch said.
George Martinez, director of leadership and youth programs for the Alaska Humanities Forum, said “we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.” And Peratrovich, he said, “reminds us that the challenge to make the changes that we want to see are driven through persistence, dedication, knowledge, and sheer willpower … but let's be clear, the struggle continues.”
Felix Rivera, Puerto Rican, is only the fourth minority person to serve on the Anchorage Assembly. He said, unfortunately, much remains to be done.
“I imagine what Elizabeth would say today if she were here to witness this continued injustice. I imagine what Elizabeth would say if she saw the deeds to homes within Anchorage and so that many of them continue to carry on the language of discrimination. With clauses like, ‘No Natives, blacks or gays allowed to live on this property. This language exists right now,” Rivera said.
Alyssa London, Tlingit, is the first Alaska Native Miss Alaska. She said whether climate change or whatever the issue, “We need all of our collective power in order to rally behind that. And I can feel that in the room that if we do our inner work, if we speak our truth or become the powers that be and speak from a place of power, that we can make a massive change as a community and also impact the world because the issues that are affecting indigenous people are not just unique to Alaska or to our communities. They affect all people.”
Native People's Action Director Kendra Kloster, Tlingit, and Anchorage Assembly Member Felix Rivera encouraged people to lobby for laws that would require state recognition of Alaska Native tribes, and the addition of LGBTQ people to anti-hate and anti-discrimination laws.
Hotch also announced that the Peratrovich dollar coin is now available from the US Mint. In 2009 the United States mint began minting and issuing dollar coins featuring designs celebrating the important contributions made by Native American tribes and individual Native Americans to the history and development of the United States. The heads side of the coins show Sacajawea, Lemhi Shoshone, carrying her infant son.
The 2020 dollar coin has a likeness of Peratrovich and the words “Anti-discrimination Law of 1945” engraved on the reverse (tails) side. In the foreground is a raven, drawn in Tlingit and Haida style formline. Peratrovich is of the Raven moiety.
Joaqlin Estus is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today and a long-time Alaska journalist.