Holly Miowak Guise, PhD
In recent years, Tlingit activist Elizabeth Peratrovich has garnered national attention beyond the boundaries of Alaska’s landscape.
While viewing a virtual tour of the Anchorage Museum’s stunning exhibit entitled, “Extra Tough: Women of the North,” I enjoyed seeing art by Yup’ik artist Apayuq Moore depicting Elizabeth Peratrovich alongside other Alaskan women historical figures including Iñupiat Arctic explorer and hired seamstress Ada Blackjack and Native activist Molly Hootch who brought educational equality to rural Alaska in the 1970s.
Elizabeth Peratrovich’s story is now reaching a national audience with people outside Alaska tuning in to learn more about this remarkable Native woman and Alaska history.
As of last year, Elizabeth Peratrovich’s image now resides on the opposite side of the Sacagawea dollar coin. In addition to recognition on US currency, a Google doodle of her likeness in December featured stunning art by Tlingit artist Michaela Goade. This follows other historical publications and films including the youth biography Fighter in Velvet Gloves by Annie Boochever and Roy Peratrovich Jr., and Director Jeffry Silverman’s For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska which features Tlingit political activist, college instructor, and orator Diane Benson who plays the role of Peratrovich.
During her time as President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS) in the 1940s, Elizabeth Peratrovich served as a spokesperson for Native rights. As an organization that focused on Native activism and community-building, ANS partnered with the fraternal organization the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) in addition to other Native rights organizations throughout the continental US.
The existence of these organizations and their dedication to Native rights predates Elizabeth Peratrovich’s leadership by decades. This illustrates that Native people, particularly from Southeast Alaska where concentrated ANS/ANB chapters reside, coordinated to assert Native rights and land claims.
Popular retellings of Elizabeth Peratrovich’s activism rightfully acknowledge her effort in speaking on the Alaska territorial legislative floor to sway them to pass the 1945 Alaska Equal Rights Act. The Act originally failed to pass in 1943. Networking with territorial Governor Ernest Gruening by inviting him to their annual convention, the ANS and ANB passed a resolution titled, “DISCRIMINATION” at the annual convention in Kake in 1944. Truly Alaska Native activism propelled the Act to finally pass in 1945.
Recently there have been doubts about symbols of this era of segregation in Alaska history, some published in the Anchorage Daily News in January 2021.
During my time as an intern for the First Alaskans Institute with the Alaska Native Policy Center, I have interviewed elders about this era in the 1940s that the late historian Terrence Cole identified as “Jim Crow in Alaska.” And over the years, as an oral historian, I have interviewed elders in Alaska, both Native and non-Native alike, about their experiences in the Alaskan territory during World War II as service members and civilians.
In addition to hearing first-hand accounts from elders on segregation in the Alaskan territory that separated and excluded Natives- and other minorities including Filipinos- from certain businesses in Alaskan towns, Governor Gruening wrote in his autobiography, Many Battles, identifying John Marin as the owner of the Douglas Inn who “had painted over its entrance: ‘No Natives Allowed” (page 319).
Such signs demarcated the spaces between white settlers and Native people excluded from entry to businesses. To deny the existence of these signs by stating that there is no photograph of a sign with specific nomenclature is akin to gaslighting the experiences of Native people who survived waves of colonial violence and epidemics, including settler projects of racial segregation that impacted the Alaska Native population on their very homelands.
Believe Governor Gruening who saw discriminatory signs, and foremost believe the Native elders who witnessed this era, lived through it, and fought to make the present-day better. Additionally, these were not the only forms of segregation that existed in the Alaskan territory.
Other forms of segregation emerged in the Alaskan territory following the Alaska Defense Command increasing their presence. The history of segregation in the US is complicated because, while Native people served in integrated platoons during this era, they experienced forms of discrimination including educational segregation in addition to separation and exclusion at Alaskan businesses.
Yet, another population of US citizens, Black Americans experienced segregation in the Armed Forces while serving on the Alaskan home front. In segregated platoons, Black Americans built the Alaska-Canadian Highway that Alaskans still use today. Among this segregation, history is the history of camps.
Executive Order 9066 relocated Japanese Alaskans to concentration camps in the American heartland. For the Unangax̂ (Aleut), following Japan’s invasion of the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska in June 1942, the US government treated the Unangax̂ as wards and second-class citizens by relocating them to camps in Southeast Alaska from 1942-1945.
All these events of racial separation and relocation occurred during the era when Elizabeth Peratrovich spoke on the Alaska territorial legislative floor. Ending segregation at Alaskan businesses was a start in a continued pattern to unravel segregation maintained by the 1896 Supreme Court decision of Plessy v Ferguson that upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine.
Elizabeth Peratrovich, an advocate, a leader who helped to organize ANB and ANS chapters across Alaskan geographies including in Iñupiat territory of northern Alaska, a bridge-builder who worked with Native families to integrate territorial schools, a coordinator for Native women’s domestic projects to improve Native families, now adorns the US $1 coin. Since 1988, when the Alaska State Legislature declared Elizabeth Peratrovich Day on February 16, her legacy has continued. Her activism follows generations of Native activism that still continues today.
Holly Miowak Guise, PhD is Iñupiaq and she is an Assistant Professor in History at the University of New Mexico. She recently published a chapter, “Elizabeth Peratrovich, the Alaska Native Sisterhood, and Indigenous Women’s Activism,” in the anthology Suffrage at 100: Women in American Politics Since 1920 edited by Stacie Taranto and Leandra Zarnow. Twitter: @hollyguise. Email: email@example.com.