Special to Indian Country Today
Nearly 20 years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, and ten years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich led the charge in passing the very first anti-discrimination law in the United States.
Peratrovich, Tlingit, was described as “a fighter with velvet gloves” by fellow Tlingit leader Stella Martin for having challenged discriminatory practices against Alaska Native people. Peratrovich pushed for the establishment of the Alaska territory’s Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945. Every February 16, Alaskans honor Peratrovich “for her courageous, unceasing efforts to eliminate discrimination and bring about equal rights in Alaska.”
In addition to a statewide day of honor and remembrance, Peratrovich has awards, monuments, and buildings named in her honor, including the Elizabeth Peratrovich Award—an award established by the ANS to support the leadership efforts of Alaska Native women. There is the Peratrovich Gallery in the Alaska House of Representatives, a theater in Ketchikan's Southeast Alaska Discovery Center bears her name, and a park in downtown Anchorage is named for her and her husband. The Alaska State Museum and the Juneau-Douglas City Museum have featured exhibits detailing her life’s work.
It may be fitting that Peratrovich was born on Independence Day in 1911, as she dedicated her life to fighting for the rights and equality of Alaska Natives. Peratrovich was a member of the Lukaax.ádi clan, Raven/Sockeye moiety. Growing up, she, and all Native Alaskans were confronted by overt racist attitudes and signs expressing blatant hatred.
In 1912, a group of progressive Natives from various S.E. villages formed the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) whose mission was to gain the right to U.S. citizenship. The Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS) followed in 1915 and together, the two organizations began fighting discrimination against Natives.
Despite being granted American citizenship in 1924, this meant very little to Alaskan Natives in practice and daily life. Native people were not welcome in Anchorage and Juneau and were unable to own homes in nice neighborhoods in cities and towns across the territory. Native children were not allowed to attend public schools. Signs were pervasive, expressing blatant hatred toward Native peoples, barring them from public places. Native people were considered subhuman as indicated by the caustic postings that read: “No Dogs, No Natives,” “No Natives Allowed,” and businesses posted “We cater to White trade only”.
In 1929, the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood organized a boycott against a Juneau movie theater that posted signs that read: "For Natives Only". The combined forces succeeded in having theaters desegregated.
In 1931, Elizabeth married Roy Peratrovich, and together they began fighting for Alaska Native rights. At 34 years old, she became Grand Camp President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood.
Her efforts to petition Governor Ernest Gruening to introduce the Anti-Discrimination Act and her testimony are considered to have been decisive factors in the passage of the law.
The legislation was violently opposed by Allen Shattuck, a territorial senator. Shattuck is on the record as having stated: "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?"
Peratrovich was not daunted by the derision and responded to Shattuck in her testimony, famously stating: "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.”
With measured composure, she flawlessly articulated the extent of discrimination against Alaska Natives. "There are three kinds of persons who practice discrimination. First, the politician who wants to maintain an inferior minority group so that he can always promise them something. Second, the Mr. and Mrs. Jones who aren't quite sure of their social position and who are nice to you on one occasion and can't see you on others, depending on who they are with. Third, the great Superman who believes in the superiority of the white race."
Senator Shattuck asked, in what was described as combative in tone, if she thought the proposed bill would eliminate discrimination. Peratrovich responded, "Do your laws against larceny and even murder prevent those crimes? 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."
When she concluded her statement, it is said that people burst out into tears and wild cheers and applause filled the gallery and Senate floor. The Senate passed the bill 11 to 5 on February 8, 1945.
Governor Gruening said, “Although we cannot by legislation eliminate racial prejudice in public places from the minds of men, legislation is useful to stop acts of discrimination.”
Henrietta Newton, a white woman, had married an Alaska Native and moved to Klawock in 1940. She soon became best friends with Peratrovich. Because of her mixed marriage, she too was on the receiving end of negative attitudes and was denied services at a beauty salon. She said she would not have been able to endure the harsh treatment her family experienced if it weren't for Elizabeth and her friendship.
Newton said, "We wouldn't have integrated schools without Elizabeth. She did a lot for children, she opened doors for them — doors that had been closed to them — the doors of public schools." Newton credited Peratrovich with sparing Native people from the degrading signs that once existed, the widespread rejection they faced, and systemic racism.
On February 6, 1988, the Alaska Legislature established February 16 as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day. February 16 was chosen as it was the day the Anti-Discrimination Act was signed in 1945.
According to the Anchorage School District, “Elizabeth Peratrovich Day provides an opportunity to remind the public of the invaluable contribution of this Native Alaskan leader who was an advocate for Native citizens and their rights. This courageous woman could not remain silent about injustice, prejudice, and discrimination.” A 2012 school district board resolution stated: “Because of her eloquent and courageous fight for justice for all, today’s Alaskans do not tolerate the blatant discrimination that once existed in our state.”
While Elizabeth Peratrovich Day is honored in Alaska, and her legacy is well known there, few people in the lower 48, are aware of her important contributions to Native American rights and American history. First Nations Development Institute, a Native grantmaking organization headquartered in Colorado, is likely the first and only entity outside of Alaska to recognize February 16 as an annual holiday.
First Nations President & CEO Michael E. Roberts, Tlingit, is from Alaska and related to Elizabeth by marriage. He believes more organizations and states should recognize Peratrovich for her leadership and the groundbreaking civil rights contributions she has made.
Roberts said that what has often struck him is that Native people don’t always know or recognize the accomplishments of their own people. “We have plenty of instances of Native leaders that have brought about change. We need to change this and celebrate our own,” said Roberts.
“The election of Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS) highlighted what we have long known in Indian communities, that American Indian women have often led the way for Indian peoples," noted Roberts. "For Alaskans, Elizabeth Peratrovich has been our long-heralded civil rights activist.”
This year a new biography about Peratrovich’s life was published, written for young adults. The book titled: Fighter in Velvet Gloves: Alaska Civil Rights Hero Elizabeth Peratrovich was written by Annie Boochever, with Elizabeth’s son, Roy Peratrovich, Jr.
Peratrovich will also be commemorated on a one dollar coin, to be issued in 2020. The U.S. Mint is working with the National Museum of the American Indian, the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska, the Sealaska Heritage Institute, and Roy Peratrovich, Jr., on the final design of the coin.
The exact design is yet to be determined, eleven images are up for consideration.
Rosa Parks is often called the “mother of the freedom movement” and may be considered the first lady of civil rights, but for Native people, Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich was a woman ahead of her time and truly led the charge in advocating for civil rights.