"In Memory of a Rights Advocate: State Sets Aside Day in Honor of Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich"

by John Tetpon

Anchorage Daily News, June 6, 1988

On a cold and bleak February afternoon in 1945, the Alaska territorial legislative gallery in Juneau was packed to the rafters. Seated among the spectators was Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich, the determined 34-year-old Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, an Indian rights group organized in 1915.

Stylishly dressed in the fashion of the 1940s, her hair neatly coiffed, Peratrovich waited patiently as witnesses called for the separation of the white and Native races in Alaska.

She listened quietly as church leaders sermonized. One said it would take 30 to 100 years before Alaska Natives would reach equality with the white man.

That day, the territory’s eight senators were in session to debate, once more, the infamous Anti-Discrimination Bill. The legislation was drafted to eliminate the "No Natives Allowed" and "We Cater To White Trade Only" signs in the windows of many restaurants and shops in the territory.

Juneau’s citizens turned out in force to listen to the hearings. The anti-discrimination debate had become white-hot. Introduced by Sen. Edward Anderson of Nome, the bill had already failed once, two years prior.

Characterized as a beautiful and sensitive Indian woman by those who knew here, Peratrovich would be honored, almost a half-century later, for her work to make discrimination illegal in Alaska. At a signing ceremony May 25 in Juneau, Gov. Steve Cowper proclaimed Feb. 16 as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day.

But 43 years ago, many struggled against the same kind of prejudice. Anne Frank, the 14-year-old Jewish girl whose diary later shook the world, had that same month died in a Nazi concentration camp.

In his book, "Many Battles," the late Ernest Gruening, then territorial governor, described what happened in the legislative hearing room that day:

"I (had) put as much feeling as I knew how into an appeal for this legislation, and was cheered by the presence in the joint assemblage of the newly elected Native legislators, Frank Peratrovich, Elizabeth’s brother-in-law, and Andrew Hope.

"(The bill had) passed the House with little debate by a vote of 9 to 5, but when it came up in the Senate, it was violently opposed by (Sen.) Allen Shattuck." Shattuck was from Juneau.

"Far from being brought closer together," Shattuck argued, "the races should be kept farther 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?"

Sen. Frank Whaley, a bush pilot and gold miner from Fairbanks, also opposed the bill. Whaley, Gruening wrote, "didn't want to sit next to Eskimos in a theater; they smelled."

When the invitation to the public to speak was offered, Peratrovich, the daughter of a lay minister of the Presbyterian Church, rose from the gallery and announced that she would like to be heard. According to Gruening’s account, the meeting hall was tense with expectation.

Peratrovich walked confidently to the raised platform and sat next to the Senate president.

"I would not have expected," she said in a quiet, steady voice, "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.

"When my husband and I came to Juneau and sought a home in a nice neighborhood where our children could play happily with our neighbor’s children, we found such a house and arranged to lease it.

"When the owners learned that we were Indians, they said ‘no.’ Would we be compelled to live in the slums?"

Peratrovich and her friends, all Indians, had been banned from the city’s finer restaurants and shops. A "No Natives Allowed" sign shouted from the window of the Douglas Inn. Through two long and sometimes hostile hours of questioning, Peratrovich stood her ground.

"Will this law eliminate discrimination?" she was asked sharply by Sen. Shattuck.

"Do your laws against larceny, rape and murder prevent those crimes?" Peratrovich shot back.

The Empire wrote that the once-strong voice of opposition was quickly whittled to "a defensive whisper." The 5-foot-5-inch Indian woman, the Empire said, stole the show.

"There are three kinds of persons who practice discrimination," Peratrovich is reported as saying to the senators there assembled.

"First, the politician who wants to maintain an inferior minority group so that he can always promise them something; second, the Mr. and Mrs. Jones who aren't quite sure of their social position and who are nice to you on one occasion and can’t see you on others, depending on who they are with; and third, the great superman who believes in the superiority of the white race."

Discrimination suffered by herself and her friends, Peratrovich told the assembled body, "has forced the finest of our race to associate with white trash," the Empire reported.

There was an awesome silence in the hall. "You could hear a pin drop," recalled Elizabeth’s husband, Roy Peratrovich, one of the early leaders of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and a front-runner in the fight for equality.

According to the next day’s Empire, Peratrovich "climaxed the hearing . . . with a biting condemnation of the ‘super race’ attitude." Her plea, Gruening said in his book, could not have been more effective. When she finished her speech, there was a wild burst of applause from the gallery. The Senate passed the bill on an 11-5 vote.

For years before the hearing, the Peratroviches had been calling attention to discrimination and prejudice whenever they saw it. The couple wrote numerous letters to Gruening, as well as territorial representative Anthony Dimond in Washington, D.C.

At home, the three Peratrovich children, shielded from racial tension by their parents, knew little of the battle their mother fought. "She never allowed us to dwell on the negative points of other people," said Roy Peratrovich, Jr., a local civil engineer.

Born on Independence Day, 1911, in Sitka, the tenacious Tlingit woman went to school at Sheldon Jackson and attended a teacher’s college in Bellingham, Wash. There, she and Roy Sr. married. "We were broke and decided that two can live as cheaply as one," the senior Peratrovich said.

Upon their return to Alaska, they were shocked by the signs in business establishments, and they set out to change things.

Gruening had given up trying to talk sense into offending business owners. "We need a new law," he told them.

Samples of anti-discrimination legislation were gathered from other states. Peratrovich and his wife lobbied the territorial legislators.

The act, once passed, won Alaska Natives full and equal accommodations in hotels, eateries, soda fountains, soft-drink parlors and roadhouses; the penalty for violations included a $250 fine, a 30-day jail term, or both.

Of Elizabeth Peratrovich, the Empire wrote: "It was the neatest performance of any witness to yet appear before this session, and there were a few red senatorial ears as she regally left the chamber."

Elizabeth Peratrovich died of cancer in 1950.

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