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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Alaskans will be honoring the contributions of civil rights champion Elizabeth Peratrovich, Tlingit, on Wednesday. Speakers from across the state in virtual celebrations will describe how her testimony in 1945 helped lead to the adoption of the nation’s first anti-discrimination law.

Feb. 16 is Elizabeth Peratrovich Day.

Peratrovich was grand president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood when the anti-discrimination bill came before the territorial senate.

Alaska state Sen. Allen Shattuck of Fairbanks said the bill would "aggravate rather than allay" racial tensions. "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 responded saying, "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 of Rights.”

Peratrovich’s grand-daughter Betsy, who is Tlingit, said having a role model like her grandmother can help people speak out today.

“Just knowing that standing up can make a difference, that speaking now against injustice is important. I imagine how she must have felt that many years ago, a woman and an Alaska Native woman, the climate she was in and just how much courage it must have taken.

“But you know, it made a difference and anybody can make a difference. I think there's a lot of opportunities currently for people to make a difference, including get out the vote efforts,” Betsy Peratrovich said.

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The Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood are holding a celebration with the theme of “The Future of Female Influence.” Speakers will be there representing more than a dozen Alaska Native organizations including the Alaska Federation of Natives, the First Alaskans Institute, the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes, and the T&H VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) Task Force.

Watch: The PBS Kids series "Molly of Denali" celebrates this holiday. Indigenous creatives Princess Johnson and Yatibaey Evans tell us more.

The Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood were formed in the early 20th century in southeast Alaska to fight for civil rights, equal education, and citizenship for Alaska Natives. They’re continuing that work today, advocating for Alaska Native rights and on issues important to them, said Alaska Native Sisterhood Grand President Daphyne Albee, Tlingit.

And, “regarding Elizabeth Perovich,” Albee said, “her actions are still continuing today where she inspires our people to continue to work and just advocate and do better for things that they really believe in and something that affects all of us, for example, voting rights.”

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Kristel Komakhuk, Alutiiq/Inupiaq, is senior liaison for development and external relationships for Alaska Pacific University, which is in the process of becoming a tribal college.

Komakhuk said of Peratrovich, “She is an iconic woman in our history, and I think that honoring her legacy is critical for future generations, but especially for future leaders that are getting educated here at APU (Alaska Pacific University), to learn a little bit more about civil rights, and recognize what she did for our communities and for our state and for our nation at a time when it was challenging for her to do so.”

A poster featuring a image of a mural by Tlingit artist Crystal Worl advertises a 2022 Elizabeth Peratrovich Day celebration (courtesy of Alaska Native Brotherhood/Alaska Native Sisterhood Grand Camp)

Following a series of events held on the 50-year anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Alaska Pacific University is taking a low-key approach. It’s giving staff, students and faculty a free cappuccino in honor of Elizabeth Peratrovich’s contributions.

And Native Student Services at the University of Alaska Anchorage is holding a virtual discussion of the Tlingit value, “Be strong in mind, body, spirit.”

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Updated to correct spelling of Kristel Komakhuk's name.

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