Standing Up For Equality: Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich

Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich

“I would not have expected that I who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind them of our own bill of rights”
These words were spoken by Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich at an Alaskan Senate session on February 8, 1945. Elizabeth was not only a member of the Tlingit, an Alaska Native tribe, but a vocal supporter of a native civil rights bill. Raised in Petersburg on the southeast Alaskan peninsula, she pursued a college education in Washington state, married fellow Alaska Native Roy Peratrovich, and moved back to Alaska in 1931. Ten years and three children later, Elizabeth and Roy encountered discrimination after relocating to Juneau, which motivated them to fight for Alaska Native rights. Elizabeth joined the Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS) and became president in 1945, shortly after Roy’s term as president in the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB). Together they pushed for an end to discrimination and public segregation, which included segregation in businesses and in transportation. While the South recognized similar institutions, African Americans there would have to wait another ten years for federal action. 



After Russia sold the Alaskan territory to the United States in 1867, Alaska Natives questioned the sale's legitimacy, since Russia had never purchased Alaska. The United States, in turn, acknowledged  Alaska Natives' tribal sovereignty. Even with these efforts, a majority of non-native Alaskans believed Alaska Natives were uncivilized. They encouraged Alaska Natives to join mainstream society and to become more Anglo. In 1905, the Nelson Act provided separate but equal schools. Children were forced to attend tribal schools. School children could not speak their native language but were forced to speak English. Helen, a Tlingit employee at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, shared her own experience with me. Her mother was forced to learn English and forget her native language. Most Tlingit members, including Helen, are no longer fluent. Alaska Natives found it increasingly difficult to counter these forces, but individuals like Elizabeth Peratrovich helped Alaska Natives gain acceptance, rights, and equality.
Helen, a Tlingit tribal member, Alaska Native Heritage Center
Beginning in 1943, Governor Gruening presented the first antidiscrimination bill, but the house rejected it. Two years later the antidiscrimination bill entered the Alaskan legislature and house once again. Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovich, representing the ANS and the ANB, attended the debates. When questioned about the effectiveness of an antidiscrimination bill, Elizabeth responded, saying “Do your laws against larceny and even murder prevent those crimes?” She was not afraid to express herself, especially when countering opposing opinions. Elizabeth reversed stereotypical notions by claimed that discrimination “forced the finest of our race to associate with white trash.” Elizabeth was an incredible role model for women everywhere. Alaska Native women normally did not vocalize their opinions or campaign so vigorously for Alaska Native rights. Helen, the Tlingit employee, told me that many tribal members disproved of her actions and refusal to conform to normal gender roles.  Because of her outspokenness, Elizabeth persuaded the Alaskan legislature and house to pass the bill.
The signing of House Bill 14, Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich second to the left
Beginning in 1943, Governor Gruening presented the first antidiscrimination bill to the state legislature, but the House rejected it. Two years later, the antidiscrimination bill entered the Alaskan legislature and house once again. Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovich, representing the ANS and the ANB, attended the debates. When questioned about the effectiveness of an antidiscrimination bill, Elizabeth responded, saying “Do your laws against larceny and even murder prevent those crimes?” She was not afraid to express herself, especially when countering opposing opinions. Elizabeth reversed stereotypical notions by claimed that discrimination “forced the finest of our race to associate with white trash.” Elizabeth was an incredible role model for women everywhere. Alaska Native women often did not vocalize their opinions or campaign so vigorously for Alaska Native rights. Helen, the Tlingit employee, told me that many tribal members disproved of her actions and refusal to conform to normal gender roles. Because of her outspokenness, Elizabeth persuaded the Alaskan legislature and house to pass the bill.

On February 16, 1945, Governor Gruening approved the antidiscrimination bill. The Alaska territory desegregated schools and public business. Business owners took down discriminatory signs. Yet, as was the case in the South, the antidiscrimination bill did not erase racism--and did not outlaw defacto segregation--in Alaska. Alaska, just a territory, prohibited institutional segregation ten years before the South. Elizabeth Peratrovich pioneered this change, and non-native and Alaska Natives alike understand her legacy. Unfortunately, she did not witness Alaska’s entrance to statehood, dying from cancer in 1958. Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich resides in the memory of many Alaskans, especially Alaska Natives, as a strong, outspoken, and more importantly female leader.

--Sarah Vining

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