Elizabeth Peratrovich

Native Alaskan Kaaxal.gat was born to the Lukaax̱.ádi clan of the Tlingit nation in Petersburg, Alaska in 1911. She was orphaned at a very young age and adopted by Andrew Wanamaker, a fisherman and Presbyterian minister, and his wife Mary. Her adoptive name became Elizabeth.

She attended Western College of Education in Bellingham, Washington where she met her husband, Roy Peratrovich. He was of Tlingit and Serbian descent. They moved back to Alaska and started a family. Roy served as mayor of Klawok for four terms.

However, when they moved to Juneau in 1941 they were horrified at the level of discrimination they had to endure as native people. They had difficulty finding housing and there were signs that no natives were allowed even in many public facilities within the city.

The Peratroviches belonged to the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood organizations and lobbied government officials to allow for Native Americans to testify about the effects of discrimination and petitioned to ban “No Natives Allowed” signs throughout the territory.

The anti-discriminatory law passed the house easily but went into full debate in the senate. Senator Allen Shattuck openly opposed the measure by saying, "Far from being brought closer together, which will result from this bill, the races should be kept further apart. Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind us?" Elizabeth listened patiently and eventually took the stand to testify. With great composure she stated, "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. When my husband and I came to Juneau and sought a home in a nice neighborhood where our children could play happily with our neighbors' children, we found such a house and had arranged to lease it. When the owner learned we were Indians, they said "no." She went on to describe what discrimination really feels like and concluded her testimony by saying "So laws against larceny and even murder prevent these crimes? No law will eliminate crimes but at least you legislators can assert to the world that you recognize the evil of the present situation and speak your intent to help us overcome discrimination.” 

Elizabeth’s impassioned and eloquent testimony is credited with helping the measure to pass. In 1945, the territory of Alaska passed the first anti-discrimination law in the United States, 19 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. February 16th is officially Elizabeth Peratrovich Day in Alaska and she is scheduled to be featured on a $1 coin produced by the U.S. Mint in 2020. 

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