Elizabeth Peratrovich Day honors a Tlingit heroine

2023 marks first nationally-recognized Elizabeth Peratrovich Day
Published: Feb. 16, 2023 at 5:05 PM AKST|Updated: Feb. 16, 2023 at 10:21 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Each year on Feb. 16, Alaskans honor a woman who altered the course of history and established rights for Indigenous peoples. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s 2022 proclamation declaring Elizabeth Peratrovich Day opened with a reflection that packs a lifetime of activism into a single sentence.

“Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich, an Alaska Native woman of the Tlingit Nation, set Alaska on the path of ensuring that every man, woman, and child is afforded equal opportunity and protection from discrimination,” the release said.

Elizabeth Jean Wanamaker was born, most appropriately, on July 4, 1911. The Tlingit name she carries is Ḵaax̲gal.aat, meaning “person who packs for themselves”, and she was given the name Elizabeth Jean when adopted at a young age by a Presbyterian minister and his wife. She was raised in the Southeast towns of Klawock, Petersburg and Ketchikan — where she graduated high school — before attending the Sheldon Jackson College located in Sitka and the Western College of Education in Bellingham, Washington.

In 1931, she met Roy Peratrovich, a fellow Tlingit man who shared many of her political passions. They later married, with Roy becoming active in local government while Elizabeth cared for their family and continued her activism. The couple was further pushed towards activism after they were denied the right to rent a home in Juneau because the neighborhood was primarily populated by white residents. Even American citizenship, which was automatically granted to white people born in the Alaska Territory, was only granted to Elizabeth Peratrovich in 1924. Both Elizabeth and her husband doggedly pursued equality for Alaska Natives as the presence of outsiders and their various prejudices increased.

Signs affixed to buildings reading “Whites Only” and “No Natives Allowed” were constant reminders to Alaska Natives that their home was becoming a place of discrimination, segregation and disenfranchisement. Alaska Natives were not allowed to use many of the same facilities as white residents of Alaska — theaters, hospitals, restaurants and other public areas denied or limited access for Indigenous peoples. Territorial Governor Ernest Gruening recognized the inequities at the time, and even penned a bill intended to cull the discrimination, but it failed in the Territorial Legislature in 1943.

Both Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovich were active members of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood, social organizations formed by Alaska Natives with similar interests in fighting for their rights in the emergent territory. It was within these groups that support for legislation codifying the rights of Alaska Natives grew —as did the political power of Indigenous peoples.

In 1944, an Inupiaq woman from Nome named Alberta Schenck who worked at a movie theater in town was fired from her job after complaining about her employer’s segregated seating. She staged a protest in which she refused to move from the white section of the theater until police intervened to remove her. She spent the night in jail, and upon exiting the next morning sent a telegram to Gov. Gruening to complain about the conditions in her town. In response, the governor gave his word that he would once again bring forward legislation to address the inequities between white and Native Alaskans.

On February 16,  Alaska celebrates a holiday honoring civil rights activist Elizabeth Wanamaker...
On February 16, Alaska celebrates a holiday honoring civil rights activist Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich.(Photo Courtesy of the Alaska State Library)

Gov. Gruening’s bill passed the Territorial House handily, but saw opposition from members of the Senate. Both Roy and Elizabeth spoke to the Senate in support of the bill, but it is generally believed that the two hours of testimony provided by Elizabeth is what moved the legislature to decide in her favor. Contemporary newspaper reports said her testimony “shamed the opposition into a defensive whisper.”

Perhaps the most enduring and remembered portion of the testimony given that day are the fiery words delivered in response to a Juneau territorial senator who opined, “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites, with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?”

“I would not have expected that 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,” Elizabeth said.

Peratrovich’s testimony moved members of the Senate to eventually pass the bill, ending Jim Crow laws in Alaska. When Gov. Gruening signed it into law, he made Alaska the first American state or territory to ban racial discrimination in public places since the end of the Civil War.

Peratrovich died in 1958 at just 47 years of age after battling breast cancer. However, 30 years after Alaska lost its warrior for equality, former Gov. Steve Cowper signed off on the first commemoration of Elizabeth Peratrovich Day, held on April 21, 1988. The celebration was later moved to Feb. 16, the day that the Alaska Equal Rights Act of 1945 was signed by Gov. Gruening.

In 2020, Peratrovich was honored not just by the government of Alaska on her namesake day, but by the United States Mint. Each year, the Mint issues a dollar coin with images honoring Native American and Indigenous women. A total of five million coins were made celebrating the 75th anniversary of the passage of the legislation that Peratrovich championed, each one bearing a likeness of Peratrovich and a form line image depicting the moiety to which she belonged — Raven, a creature who in the generations of Tlingit through stories and song, brought light to the world.