Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich (1911-1958)
Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich, a Tlingit Native Alaskan, worked to end racial discrimination against Alaska Natives. Born in 1911 and raised in Alaska, Peratovich attended college in Bellingham, Washington, where she met and married her husband Roy in 1931. They returned to Alaska ten years later to raise their family. They were shocked by the blatant discrimination against Native Alaskans similar to the discriminatory policies toward African Americans. For example, many storefronts and businesses displayed signs stating "No Natives Allowed" and "No Dogs, No Natives." Many Natives faced unemployment and poverty due to segregation and discrimination based on their race.
In February 1945, the Territorial Senate met as a Committee of the Whole to discuss equal rights and a bill that would prohibit racial discrimination in Alaska. Many senators spoke against equal rights at the committee, refusing to recognize that there was a problem. Some of what they said included statements like, “the bill would aggravate the already hard feelings between Natives and whites,” and “the bill was unnecessary,” and “the real answer was in the separation of the races.”
The legislative custom at the time was to open the floor to anyone present who wished to speak on the bill. Peratrovich was present as a representative from the Alaska Native Sisterhood. She was the final speaker of the day. She opened her eloquent speech about prejudice and injustice by saying, “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.” Peratrovich spoke about what life was like for her and other Native Alaskans as second-class citizens. At the end of her speech she condemned the men’s “superior race” attitude. Her speech was met with thunderous applause. The Senate then passed the Alaska Civil Rights Act by a vote of 11 to 5.
It took forty years for Peratrovich’s efforts to be widely recognition. In 1988, the Alaska Legislature established February 16th, the anniversary of the signing of the Anti-Discrimination Act, as "The Annual Elizabeth Peratrovich Day.”
- Beckett, Elizabeth and Sarah Teel, “Elizabeth Peratrovich,” Library Thinkquest, 1997, http://library.thinkquest.org/11313/Early_History/Native_Alaskans/elizabeth.html (3 February 2006).
- Dorough, Dalee Sambo. “Native American Women: Alaska,”Houghton Mifflin: College Division, n.d., http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/women/html/wh_026501_alaska.htm (3 February 2006).
- Representative Fran Ulmer, “Honoring Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich,” UAA-ISER, 1 May 1992, http://www.alaskool.org/projects/native_gov/recollections/peratrovich/Honoring_EPeratrovich.htm (3 February 2006).
- Image from the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal Recipients Page