Civil Rights Heroine, The Story of Elizabeth Peratrovich
This essay by UAA student Susan Pierce won first place in the Elizabeth Peratrovich essay contest. It appeared in the UAA Northern Light in 2001.
The Raven Outsmarted the Chief and freed the sun, giving light to the world.
Kaaxal.gat was born in Petersburg, Alaska on July 4, 1911. She was of the Tlingit Lukaax.adi clan of the Raven moiety. Orphaned at an early age, she was adopted and given the name Elizabeth Wanamaker. Growing up in Petersburg and Ketchikan, she went to college at the Western College of Education in Bellingham, Wash.
It was in Bellingham, that she married Roy Peratrovich of Klawock. In 1941, they returned to Klawock, Alaska. They lived there for several years, as Roy worked in the fishery business, then becoming involved in government affairs. He eventually became mayor of Klawock.
Several years later they relocated to Juneau. It was on their arrival in Juneau that they were horrified by the discrimination that whites were showing the Native people. Roy continued to participate in territorial government until 1946. Elizabeth worked for the Territorial Treasurer's office, the Legislature, and the Juneau Credit Association. While in Juneau, both were very active members of native groups. Roy was the Grand President of the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) for many years, as was Elizabeth for the Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS).
In 1945, Governor Ernest Gruening, Congressional Representative Anthony J. Dimond and Mayor Edward Anderson, of Nome, helped introduce legislation for equal rights of Native people. The anti-discrimination bill passed quickly through the house in a vote of 19 to 5. It was not until it reached the Senate that a two-hour discussion of the bill began, opposition arose. "Far from being brought closer together, which will result from this bill," Senator Allen Shattuck began, "the races should be kept further apart. Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind us?" Senator Frank Whaley did not want to sit next to an Eskimo in a theater, because they smelled. Senator Collens spoke in opposition as well, stating "The Eskimos are proud of their origins and are aware that harm comes to them from mixing with whites. It is the mixed, who is not accepted by either race, that causes the trouble. I believe in racial pride and do not think this bill will do, other than arouse bitterness."
Other Senators such as O.D. Cochran supported the bill; he being able to cite many instances of discrimination he had experienced. Senator Walker also was in firm favor of the bill. As the discussion became heated, Elizabeth Peratrovich held her composure and listened to the opposition, who demanded the separation of natives and whites. Her husband was invited to speak his views of the bill, by Senator Walker, another supporter. "Only Indians can know how it feels to be discriminated against." The ANB Grand President spoke, "Either you are for discrimination or you are against it accordingly as you vote in this bill."
Following Roy's testimony, an opportunity was given for anyone present to voice his or her opinion. It was then that the strong, proud Elizabeth calmly rose and requested to speak. In the presence of mostly white and predominately male legislators, she spoke. "I would not have expected," she stated, "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. When my husband and I came to Juneau and sought a home in a nice neighborhood where our children could play happily with our neighbors' children, we found such a house and had arranged to lease it. When the owner learned we were Indians, they said "no." "Would we be compelled to live in the slums?"
She continued to give a well worded, intense idea of the discrimination that the Indians and other Native people lived with on a daily basis. Having been a victim of this blatant prejudice in her daily life, Elizabeth told the assembly that "the finest of our race (has been forced) to associate with white trash." A silence set in over the crowded hall.
The aforementioned Senator Shattuck asked Elizabeth if she thought the proposed bill would eliminate discrimination. Her rebuttal, which was a poignant part of her testimony was, "So laws against larceny and even murder prevent these crimes? No law will eliminate crimes but at least you legislators can assert to the world that you recognize the evil of the present situation and speak your intent to help us overcome discrimination."
After Elizabeth was finished, a rousing applause came from the crowd and Senate. Strong opposition could not dare to oppose the fervent plea of this Tlingit woman. On February 8, 1945, the Senate passes the anti-discrimination bill, 11 to 5. She had helped begin a "new era in Alaskan racial relations."
She continued to work hard for the equality of all Alaskans with her husband, as long as she was able. She passed away on December 1, 1958, after a long battle with cancer.
Elizabeth's memory lives on. In 1998, the Alaska Legislator established Feb. 16 as "Annual Elizabeth Peratrovich Day," recognizing the efforts of this former President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood. Former President Bill Clinton cited Elizabeth's struggle in a speech dedicated to Women's History Month. Her son Roy Jr., now retired, continues to speak and create art based on his parents' fight for equality.
Kaaxal.gat like the Raven of her clan brought the light of equality to the world.