Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood
65th Annual Convention
Keynote Address by Roy Peratrovich
It is indeed an honor for me to have been selected to give the keynote address to the ANB-ANS 65th annual convention. Before delivering my address, I am going to take this time to pay tribute to those Haidas who served us in the past as grand officers. All of us, I am sure, knew Rev. Samuel G. Davis. If not, you have no doubt heard of him. He served us well as Grand President, and later served with distinction on our Executive Committee. I had the privilege of serving with Rev. Davis and shall never forget the fine relationship that developed between us. Although I was his junior by several years, he treated me as his equal because of the position I held as Grand President. This, to say the least, was very encouraging and helpful.
I would like to make a personal reference at this time. During the ANB Convention at Hydaburg in 1941 [I] was honored when Rev. Sam Davis stood up and placed my name in nomination for a second term. I was elected by acclamation, and I give the credit to Rev. Davis. He was so respected by everyone that no one dared place another nominee before the convention.
Nellie Branovich served as the first Grand President of ANS; Helen Sanderson also served as Grand President of sisterhood, having been elected the same time I was in 1941. Clara Natkong was also Grand President of ANS. Albert Brown served as our Grand Secretary.
At the present time, we are privileged to have with us an outstanding young man formerly of Hydaburg and now residing in Sitka. He served as Grand President and is now a member of the Executive Committee. He is none other than our young friend, Nelson Frank.
I do want to mention one other individual who has been, and still is, very active in the affairs of our Indian people. He has attended every convention I can remember and has contributed a great deal to our Indian cause, although he did not serve as our Grand President, his work was nonetheless outstanding . . . my good friend, Victor Haldane.
Last, but not least, our Grand President, Walter, who was "hooked" by a pretty Haida girl. If through an oversight I have missed someone, please accept my apologies.
This year's theme of convention is wisely chosen. It behooves us all to take a little time and reflect on our customs and culture. We have lost and continue to lose the fine culture that our people enjoyed,. For instance, the respect we were taught to have for our elders is now becoming a thing of the past and we are losing the close clan ties we have had in the past. Under our clan system you were either a brother, sister or mother, and this cemented us together as a family unit. Because of this closeness, we did not know a thing about social services. We took care of one another as the need arose.
We have had outstanding speakers in the past who delivered "fiery" and inspirational talks that gave us the needed fuel to rekindle our enthusiasm for our work in the ANB and ANS. Those talks were very inspiring and helpful. This year, I thought it might be a good thing if we took time to reflect upon the accomplishments of ANB and ANS.
Quite often someone asks, "What has ANB and ANS done for our people?" This is a very legitimate question but, at times, becomes somewhat annoying. It is no one's fault but our own that some of our people are not aware of our accomplishments. In the past, when we of the older generation start reflecting on ANB's accomplishments, we invariably get accused of "living in the past." Every organization, government, and country has a history. In U.S. schools we are taught the subject of history. This is done for the purpose of sharing the hardships, difficulties and accomplishments experienced by our country. So, if this can be done by others, I see no reason we cannot do it in our organization. Our elders, too, shared with us the history of our clans, etc.
I need not remind you that the ANB was organized in 1912 by twelve dedicated and farsighted individuals who were trained at Sheldon-Jackson Junior College. These men recognized the need for uniting efforts to correct injustices. They were interested in correcting injustices imposed, not only on our people, but on other minorities as well. I could elaborate a great deal on each of the accomplishments, but for the sake of brevity, I shall try to hit on the highlights of the accomplishments of the organizations.
I do not know if our younger generation is aware that as Indians we did not become citizens of the United States until 1924. It took an Act of Congress to accomplish this for the Indian people. Our leaders back in those days fought for our rights to become citizens. Their continued efforts and dedication resulted in the action taken by Congress. Although this was accomplished, we were still denied the right to vote. The ANB took it upon itself to correct this discrimination. ANB made a "test case" out of this, went to the courts, and the courts upheld the ANB's position that we were citizens and therefore entitled to exercise all the privileges granted to all citizens.
It was during the 1924 or 1929 annual convention of the ANB-ANS that the subject of our land claims was brought to the attention of the convention. This always interested me, as the seed was planted at that convention not by a Tlingit or Haida, but by a Tsimsian of Metlakatla who was married to one of our Tlingit women. He urged and warned the people that if they did not take action they would stand to lose all their land.
It is a matter of record that the ANB planted the seed of suing the Federal Government for lands that were taken from us without just compensation. ANB and ANS fostered the idea and devoted time at our annual convention in discussing and promoting the land claims. Through the efforts of these organizations, Congress passed a jurisdictional act in 1935 which gave us authority to sue the government for lands taken from us. The First Central Council of the Tlingit and Haidas was organized in Wrangell in April, 1938 and later [in] 1941. The ANB and ANS, because of our dues paying set up in our organization, had to create a new organization. It continued, however, to support this effort which finally bore fruit.
My first observation of our leaders performing on our behalf was during the early '30s while working on a missionary boat called "The Princeton." We stopped off in Juneau for a few days. Unbeknownst to me, a bill was up before the Legislature which would have prohibited the sale of liquor to our Indian people. I heard about our leaders appearing before the Legislature, and I went to the legislative chambers to hear their testimony. Mind you, these men were the products of the teachings of Christianity at Sheldon-Jackson School. They were taught to look down upon the partaking of alcoholic beverages and smoking as being very sinful. As strongly as they were opposed to the use of alcoholic beverages, they opposed the legislation because it would take away a part of our rights as citizens of the territory. They testified before the Territorial Legislature and called upon lawmakers to extend that privilege to our Indian people. In other words, although they were opposed to this, they argued that this is a right that should be extended to all citizens. The bill was was defeated, and as a result, we can get just as drunk as our White brothers. These men fought for principles and continued to do so until they passed away from our midst.
In 1940, I was honored in being elected to my first term as your Grand President. My wife, who has since passed away, and I discussed our position and what we could do to better the lot of our Indian people. Since we were living in a small village, we decided that if we were to be of any help, we would have to move somewhere else to be effective. Of course, Juneau being our capitol, it was the natural place to go. I applied for all sorts of jobs and was hired as a file clerk in the Territorial Treasurer's office. I moved my family to Juneau and worked there for twenty years.
When I first arrived in Juneau, I was shocked to see signs in front of business houses stating "We cater to White trade only." In another place, "No Natives Allowed," and some even went further and became more insulting with "No dogs or Indians allowed." These signs were not confined to Juneau. It was prevalent in large areas such as Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Nome. We conferred with our then-Governor Gruening of Alaska and sought his assistance in having these degrading signs removed. Fortunately, this man was sympathetic. He called upon the individual proprietors of these places who discriminated against Indians to remove those signs. However, his efforts to remove the signs were unsuccessful. He finally advised us to seek legislation to correct this deplorable situation. It was during this time that the theaters had an imaginary line that an Indian, Eskimo or Aleut could not cross. When you entered the theater you were immediately placed in the Indian section. Unfortunately, we had a few that played White men and as a result would mingle with the Whites. It is amusing to me that the same so-called White Indians became "real" Indians when the land claims suit was brought to a successful conclusion.
In order to introduce suitable and corrective legislation we appealed to our delegate to Congress Anthony J. Dimond. Through his efforts we were able to obtain copies of legislation passed by the states in the Lower 48. We researched these laws and put together ideas obtained from this source and had a bill drawn up and introduced at the Territorial Legislature during the 1943 session. When I say this legislation attracted widespread interest, it would be the understatement of the year. When this bill was brought before the Legislature, my wife and I testified on behalf of this bill. We had experts who appeared in opposition to this bill. Outstanding people such as church-pillars or so-called "Christians" from the Protestant Church appeared and each stated that we had not reached that level where we could associate with the so-called White man.
One individual who was a staunch church-pillar testified that it would take 30-100 years before any Indian could associate with the White man. As a Protestant, I guess you could call me a lazy Presbyterian. I almost became a Catholic because people of our own faith did not believe we were ready to associate with them.
I learned my first lesson in politics during that session about cut-throat politicians. We lobbied with various legislators to support our bill and the day the bill was coming up before the house, I talked with a representative from Anchorage who was a key man in getting votes to put over our bill. I approached him at the door of the Chambers and he assured me he would support our bill. I was so elated I informed my friends in the gallery that the bill would pass. On a roll call vote, lo and behold, this new found friend of mine from Anchorage switched votes and killed the bill on a tie vote. We had to wait until 1945 to introduce a new bill as the Territorial Legislature met every other year during those days.
ANB and ANS were instrumental in having two or three of our Indian men elected to the Legislature during the interim. One was Andrew Hope and another my brother Frank. I believe the following election we got Frank Johnson in. To make a long story short, we had some help in the 1945 session. We had terrific opposition but the bill passed the Legislature with flying colors. Passage of this legislation forced the proprietors to remove their insulting signs and were forced to admit Indians to their establishments.
I would like to comment that since the enactment of this law none of our Indians have ever filed charges of discrimination under this act. Only two have been filed to date and those were filed by Blacks who were denied accommodations in hotels or apartments and had the proprietors convicted of violation of the anti-discrimination act.
It was during this time we were experiencing a problem with the public school system. Our students were being denied admittance to the public schools. Eleven of our students were actually discharged from the school in Juneau. Shortly after this happened, the school board held a meeting regarding this matter. As your Grand President I made an attempt to attend the school board meeting in order to present our views, but, as I approached the room where the meeting was to be held, the Chairman stood up and literally closed the door in my face. The next day, the local newspaper had a headline that the Chairman of the school board would rather resign than be a party to a school board that admitted Indian children to public schools. His reason for opposing Indian children, and I quote, was "If we admitted Indian children, the standards would be lowered."
Since no avenues were left open to us, we decided to resort to legal action. We retained William Paul, Jr., an attorney, who was assisted by his brother. The case was heard and the court ruled in our favor. Our eleven students were readmitted and, ironically, one of the eleven students later became Valedictorian of her graduating class.
It becomes annoying to me when I hear some of our people belittle the ANB's efforts in this respect. A few have stated that they did not have any difficulty in admittance to public schools. The only way one was admitted to public schools was if the individual fibbed about his true ancestry.
I may add here that, in my opinion, one great thing happened as a result of the settlement of the land claims. It made Indians out of all of us.
Believe me, it was tough being an Indian in those days. One had to be very brave. Nowadays, it has become popular to be an Indian. Quite often in the past, I have been very disappointed in the attitude taken by some of our people who became interested in becoming a member of the ANB and ANS. Too often, I have seen people join and immediately aspire to high office within the organizations. I see nothing wrong with this, however, some of these who have aspired to high office dropped out of the organization entirely when they were unsuccessful in attaining a high position. I think it is appropriate at this time to quote our beloved president John F. Kennedy's remark in his inaugural address wherein President Kennedy stated . . . "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." This should be our attitude in becoming members of these great organizations.
The ANB and ANS were instrumental in admitting Indians to the Pioneer Home. It also succeeded in having aid to dependent children (which is commonly referred to as Widow's Pension) extended to cover our Indian people. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and amended to include Alaska in 1936, was fought for by the ANB and ANS. The organization was also successful in equalizing the amounts given to recipients of old-age pensions. During this period of time I was working in the Territorial Treasurer's Office and, of course, assisted in running tapes on redeemed warrants. Without looking at the names as I went along, I would immediately know I was in the Indian section when the amounts dropped from $60-45 to $20-15. We were successful in equalizing these payments for our Indian people.
Our organizations were also successful in extending Workmen's Compensation Act to our Indian people. We were also very instrumental in having hospitals built for our Indian people in Alaska. I still have a copy of the Congressional Record wherein a letter signed by me as Grand President was inserted in the Record. This letter, of course, was prepared by our Executive Committee. We pleaded with Congress to appropriate funds to build these hospitals.
I challenge all Indian organizations, past and present, to show where they have done more, or a fraction of what we have done for our Indian people. I am extremely proud to have had a hand in fighting for these rights. I may have overlooked one or two items; however, this can be corrected later. Accomplishments I have mentioned regarding the foregoing matters can be substantiated by Territorial and Legislative records, newspapers and those familiar with our efforts. We have accomplished much. The fact remains that we still have some areas of concern ahead.
Several years ago, because of my workload, I failed to attend the annual convention. I did, however, send a telegram to the convention making a recommendation to have the ANS designated to spearhead the formation of committees to disseminate information on drug and alcohol abuse. I envisioned them starting up village committees, who would assume these tasks within their areas. Apparently, my telegram was just filed away with no action taken.
I am again making that same recommendation because of the fact that the drug and alcohol abuse is becoming prevalent among our young people, and if we do not apply brakes now, we will find our young people destroying themselves, not only physically, but mentally as well. The problem is a big one and unless we take steps to educate our people to the dangers of using drugs and alcohol, we will set ourselves back a good many years. Mr. Chairman and Madam Chairman, I strongly recommend to this convention that such committees be established in our villages.
As for the second item, I wonder how many of us are aware of the fact that we do not have Indian representation in the State Legislature from Southeast. The last one we had there was my brother Frank who served several years ago. We do have a few Eskimos and Aleuts in the legislature now but it is very noticeable that we do not have one Tlingit, Haida, or Tsimpsian from Southeast. We have the qualified people in our midst and it is time we all joined hands in supporting at least one of our qualified Indian people to represent us in the State Legislature. Although I am not a candidate for any office, I would like to pay a great tribute to our Indian women. We have many, many qualified Indian women who should also be given consideration in selecting people to represent us. They should be encouraged to assume more leadership roles.
In the past we were represented in the Legislature by William L. Paul, Sr., Andrew Hope, Frank Peratrovich, Frank G. Johnson, Alfred Widmark, and Frank See. These men represented us well and with distinction. We have, as stated above, qualified people we can put in the Legislature but will take work and unification in order to succeed. I know we are capable of accomplishing this feat.
I have tried very hard to make this keynote address as brief as possible. Many of you realize that the older one gets, the longer one wants to talk. So with that, I wish all of you a very successful convention.
As my Haida friends would say . . . HOW-AH . . . (Thank you in Haida) . . . and good sailing.
P.S. "Keynote Message stands, even after two years"
"Editors note: although the following was presented two years ago, it is alive as the day it was spoken. The delegates gave the speaker a standing ovation as he walked off the platform."