Observing Elizabeth Peratrovich Dayby Former Senator Mark Begich
Posted on 2013-02-12
BEGICH. Mr. President, every year on February 16, Alaskans
take time to remember and celebrate Elizabeth Peratrovich, a Tlingit
woman who demonstrated courage in her convictions--a courage which
changed the course of civil rights treatment for Alaska Natives.
Almost 25 years ago, the Alaska State Legislature designated this date as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day to commemorate the signing of the Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 and to honor Ms. Peratrovich.
Elizabeth Wanamaker was born on July 4, 1911. Her family traveled extensively on missionary trips throughout southeast Alaska, providing Elizabeth with broad educational experiences and connecting her with people throughout the region--an extraordinary opportunity for a Native girl of that era.
After leaving the State to attend Western College in Bellingham, WA, she returned to Alaska with her new husband, Roy Peratrovich, who was half Tlingit, to work in the canneries in Klawock. Both were educated and interested in Native issues, and Roy joined the Alaska Native Brotherhood, ANB, and Elizabeth joined the Alaska Native Sisterhood, ANS. Both ANB and ANS were working to gain land claims and civil rights for Alaska's Native people. Their interests turned to activism, and Elizabeth and Roy began to get more involved in their community. Roy was elected as mayor of Klawock.
Eventually, the couple decided to move to Alaska's territorial capital, Juneau, in search of more opportunities and a better education for their children. Their dreams quickly dissolved when they discovered Natives were not welcome in many places in Juneau. There were signs reading ``No dogs, No Natives or Filipinos'' and others that simply said ``No Natives Allowed.'' They found separate drinking fountains and separate entryways in public buildings for non-Whites. They learned they could only purchase property in Native neighborhoods, could only be seated in a segregated portion of the local theater, and could only send their children to missionary schools--not the public schools for which they paid a school tax.
In 1941, Elizabeth and Roy wrote a joint letter to Territorial Governor Ernest Gruening about their concerns. Many legislators were entrenched with the idea that Alaska Natives were second class citizens and despite the fact they paid taxes and bore arms in defense of the Nation, they were not endowed with the same rights as others.
However, 1945 brought some hope. Antidiscrimination legislation had passed the Alaska State House but was stalled in the Senate. One senator made a speech stating that Natives had only recently emerged from savagery and they were not fit for society. He argued they had not had the experience of 5,000 years of civilization.
With great courage and composure, Elizabeth Peratrovich stood during public testimony and confronted the senator who had just belittled her and her people. Not only was she a Native addressing the mostly White senate, she was also the first woman ever to address the body.
Elizabeth Peratrovich opened her testimony with, ``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.'' The senate gallery and floor exploded in applause. The opposition that had been so absolute and emphatic shrank to a mere whisper.
On February 8, 1945, a bill to end discrimination in Alaska passed the senate by a vote of 11 to 5. The bill was signed into law on February 16--the day we celebrate Elizabeth Peratrovich Day.
Elizabeth Peratrovich was instrumental in making Alaska the first organized government under the U.S. flag to condemn discrimination. Today in Alaska, we celebrate Elizabeth [[Page S649]] Peratrovich Day and affirm our beliefs in equality.
Thank you for allowing me to embrace the memory of one woman who fought for equality for all, Alaskan Elizabeth Peratrovich.