Peratrovich, Elizabeth Wanamaker (1911–1958)

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Peratrovich, Elizabeth Wanamaker (1911–1958)

Grand Camp President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood who was in the forefront of the fight to end discrimination against the indigenous peoples in Alaska. Born Kaaxgal.aat in Petersburg, Alaska, on July 4, 1911; died after a long battle with cancer on December 1, 1958; interred in Juneau's Evergreen Cemetery; a Tlingit, she was born into the Lukaax.adi clan of the Raven moiety; attended Ketchikan High School; continued studies at Western College of Education in Bellingham, Washington; married Roy Peratrovich, on December 15, 1931; children.

A Tlingit and Grand Camp President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS), Elizabeth Peratrovich

led the battle to outlaw discrimination against Alaska's indigenous peoples. Born with the Tlingit name of Kaaxgal.aat in Petersburg, Alaska, in 1911, she was adopted after the deaths of her parents while she was still young. Following her graduation from Ketchikan High School, she went on to study in Bellingham, Washington, at Western College of Education. In 1931, she married Roy Peratrovich, of Klawock, in Washington. To raise their family, they returned to Alaska a decade later, in 1941.

From Klawock they moved to Juneau, where they were amazed to see businesses displaying signs which were blatantly discriminatory against Alaska's indigenous peoples. In addition to shop-window signs which read, "No Dogs or Indians Allowed," the discriminatory practices in Juneau during the 1940s included segregated areas in movie theaters and some restaurants (others banned Natives entirely), housing inequalities, and the prohibition of Indian children from public schools.

For years, the Peratrovichs, diligent champions of human rights in Alaska, lobbied for an Anti-Discrimination Bill. Their influence, along with that of the ANS and Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB), was instrumental in the eventual passing of this legislation in 1945. In that year, the bill was ratified in the state house with relative ease by a 19-to-5 vote, but it met violent opposition when it reached the state senate. Among those opposed was Allen Shattuck who declared: "Far from being brought closer together, which will result from this bill, 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?"

When Senate President Joe Green asked if there was "anyone in the gallery who would like to testify," Elizabeth Peratrovich rose:

I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with 5,000 years 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 owners learned we were Indians, they said "no." Would we be compelled to live in slums?

When a dubious Shattuck challenged Peratrovich, "Will this law eliminate discrimination?," her response drew applause not only from the gallery but also from the senate floor:

Do your 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 of your intent to help us overcome discrimination.

Largely thanks to her plea, the senate did just that, passing the bill 11 to 5. Wrote the Daily Alaska Empire of Peratrovich's speech, "It was the neatest performance of any witness yet to appear before this session and there were a few red senatorial ears as she regally left the chambers." In 1989, Alaska formally recognized her contribution to the battle for human rights by setting aside February 16 as "Elizabeth Peratrovich Day."


A Recollection of Civil Rights Leader Elizabeth Peratrovich 1911–1958. Compiled by Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. August 1991.