|Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich|
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|
|The signing of House Bill 14, Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich second to the left|
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.