Elizabeth Peratrovich, Tlingit Raven moiety, Lukaax.ádi clan, was born on July 4, 1911, to a Tlingit mother who had to give her up for adoption. She was raised by her adoptive parents, Jean and Andrew Wanamaker, in Sitka, Ketchikan, and Klawock, Alaska. Her parents raised her in a traditional Tlingit lifestyle. Her father, who also worked as a traveling preacher, would preach in both Tlingit and English, and modeled for her the importance of public speaking and speaking her native language. She graduated from Ketchikan High School in the same class as her future husband, Roy Peratrovich Sr. They attended teacher’s college together in Washington for a year, then got married and returned home to Alaska in 1931, where they started their family.
Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovich joined the Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS) and Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) respectively after their marriage. Throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, the ANB and the ANS focused their energies on citizenship rights (which included voting), cultural recovery, and land claims. These organizations persistently lobbied the federal government for change. They were successful; the Indian Reorganization Act was amended to allow Alaska Native villages to organize their tribal governments in what was known as the Tlingit-Haida Jurisdictional Act of 1935.
When the Peratroviches moved to Juneau and looked for a house to rent in the city, they were turned away from several properties because they were Indigenous. Signs read
“No Natives allowed,” “No Dogs, No Natives,” “We cater to white trade only.” They were told their children were not allowed to attend school with white children, and would be required to attend a separate school for minority children; Elizabeth had a meeting with the school district superintendent and persuaded him to admit her children (Boochever and Peratrovich, 27-28). No one knows what she said, although the family believes that she mentioned that she and her husband paid school taxes (Boochever and Peratrovich, 28). Roy Peratrovich Jr. was the first Alaska Native child to attend the school intended for white children in Juneau.
The Peratroviches also heard the story of Alberta Schenck, an Iñupiat woman who was fired from her job at a Nome movie theatre because she complained about segregated seating there. Later Schenck went back to the theatre with her white boyfriend and refused to leave the “white side” as the manager demanded, so she was jailed. In 1944, the Peratroviches saw a sign on the Douglas Inn in Juneau with a “No Natives” sign, and Elizabeth and Roy Sr. wrote a letter to Governor Ernest H. Gruening, asking him to remove the signs and help them gain equality (CCTHITA, 16). Elizabeth Peratrovich was already the Grand President of the ANS and Roy Peratrovich was Grand Camp President of the ANB; they had experience with lobbying campaigns. Gruening was sympathetic with their aims and worked with territorial representatives and the Peratroviches to draft an anti-discrimination bill and send it to the Alaska Territorial Legislature in 1943 (NMAI, image 7). The bill passed the House but was defeated in the Senate. The Peratroviches did not give up, and Elizabeth worked with Governor Gruening to get a bill to the Alaska Territorial Legislature again. She garnered support by flying to different cities and villages in Alaska to get people to vote and to run for office, inspiring two Tlingit men and an Iñupiat man to run for the Territorial House of Representatives and win (Boochever and Peratrovich, 45). When the Alaskan Territorial Legislature took up the anti-discrimination bill again, Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovich prepared to make their remarks during the public comment period.
On February 5, 1945, Elizabeth Peratrovich was knitting in the legislative gallery and listening to the Alaska Territorial Legislature’s House and then its Senate debate. A territorial senator from Juneau, Allan Shattuck, said, “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 five thousand years of recorded civilization behind us?” (CCTHITA, 20). Other senators made their remarks, and when public comment was invited at the end of the debate, Elizabeth Peratrovich stood and said, “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.” She spoke about the inequalities and racism her family had experienced, their inability to get housing and equal schooling because they were Indigenous. When she finished, Senator Shattuck asked her if she believed the proposed bill would eliminate discrimination (CCTHITA, 21). She said, “Do your laws against larceny and even murder prevent those crimes? No law will eliminate crimes but at least you as legislators can assert to the world that you recognize the evil of the present situation and speak your intent to help us overcome discrimination” (CCTHITA, 22). The vote was taken and the Alaska Territorial Legislature passed House Bill 14, Chapter 2, Anti-Discrimination Act. Governor Gruening signed the bill into law on February 16, 1945; it was the nation’s first anti-discrimination bill (Boochever and Peratrovich, 58).
Elizabeth Peratrovich continued her activism for the rest of her life, while raising her family; she died in 1958 from cancer. In 1989, Alaska designated February 16 as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day; in 1992, Gallery B in the House Legislature of the Alaska State Capitol was named the Elizabeth Peratrovich Gallery. She has been honored for her civil and voting rights activism throughout Alaska, and the nation. Remembering her work for equal rights is a good way to start Native American Heritage Month.
Note: we use Tlingit rather than Lingít here because that is the way the name is spelled in the documentation cited.
E99.T6 B66 2019 Boochever, Annie. Fighter in velvet gloves: Alaska civil rights hero Elizabeth Peratrovich.
Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA), Sharon Olsen and Wanda Culp (1991). [PDF] A Recollection of Civil Rights Leader Elizabeth Peratrovich 1911-1958. Retrieved October 24, 2021.
Peratrovich Family papers, 1929-2001. National Museum of the American Indian.
E748.G898 A35 Gruening, Ernest. Many battles: the autobiography of Ernest Gruening.
E93.B873 Brookings Institution. Institute for Government Research. The problem of Indian administration; report of a survey made at the request of Honorable Hubert Work, Secretary of the Interior, and submitted to him, February 21, 1928.
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KFA1705.C37 2012 Case, David S. and David S. Voluck. Alaska Natives and American laws. 3rd edition.
E99.T6 H217 1994 Haa Kusteeyí, Our Culture: Tlingit Life Stories.
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