Have you ever heard of Elizabeth Peratrovich? No? Well, that is about to change. Let’s meet the Tlingit woman who fought for the rights of Alaska Native peoples.
Elizabeth Peratrovich is an often-overlooked American hero, but we should all know her name. I only found out about her a few months ago, and her story instantly earned my respect. You will soon see why!
In this post, I’ll introduce you to Elizabeth and tell you how to learn more about this amazing woman. It’s time to explore the Alaskan civil rights movement that led to the first anti-discrimination law in US history.
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Elizabeth Jean Wanamaker, also known as Ḵaax̲gal.aat, was born on July 4, 1911 in Alaska Territory. She was a member of the Lukaax̱.ádi clan, part of the Raven moiety of the Tlingit nation. Growing up, Elizabeth traveled all over southern Alaska with her father, a Presbyterian minister, as he preached in Tlingit and English. It was her father who taught her to speak clearly and persuasively.
At 20, Elizabeth married Roy Peratrovich, a fellow Alaska Native of Tlingit and Croatian descent. They would become the power couple of Alaskan civil rights activism.
Elizabeth Peratrovich & the Alaska Equal Rights Act of 1945
In the first half of the 20th century, Alaska – like most of the United States – suffered from Jim Crow laws. In Alaska, it was the Native peoples who bore the brunt of discrimination. Natives had designated seating sections in restaurants and movie theaters. “No Natives Allowed” signs hung all over. And Natives could not exercise their voting rights.
Elizabeth and Roy fought bitterly against racial injustice alongside the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood. After years of advocacy and campaigning, a major victory came in 1945 when the Alaska Senate passed the Alaska Equal Rights Act of 1945. This was the first anti-discrimination law in the United States since the Civil War. And Elizabeth was right there in the middle of it.
At the end of the debate in the Alaska Senate, Elizabeth Peratrovich stood up and gave an impassioned speech. According to a local newspaper account, she “climaxed the hearing by wringing volleying applause from the galleries and the senate floor alike, with a biting condemnation of the ‘super race’ attitude.” One prejudiced senator insisted that Natives “barely out of savagery” had no right to vote or make demands. But Elizabeth promptly put him in his place with a now legendary response:
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.~ Elizabeth Peratrovich
Can you see why Elizabeth Peratrovich is my new hero? Everyone should know about this incredible woman who defied racism to make a difference for the indigenous peoples of Alaska. After her testimony in the Alaska Senate, she continued to fight for Alaska Native rights for the rest of her life. Elizabeth died young of cancer in 1958, but her memory has lived on.
Elizabeth is an inspiration to marginalized people all over the United States. The State of Alaska has recognized her efforts by declaring February 16 Elizabeth Peratrovich Day. And in 2020, Elizabeth appeared on the US dollar coin.
Alas, I haven’t gone to the bank yet to demand an Elizabeth Peratrovich dollar. (COVID and all that.) But rest assured, it will happen! I want this little piece of American history. In addition to Elizabeth, the coin features the raven, a symbol of the Tlingit raven moiety which Elizabeth belonged to.
Eager to learn more about Elizabeth? If so, you are in luck! There is a short biography about her as well as a documentary that features her life.
Fighter in Velvet Gloves: A Biography of Elizabeth Peratrovich
Fighter in Velvet Gloves is marketed for young teens, but really people of all ages should read it. Annie Boochever, an Alaskan author, partnered with Elizabeth’s son Roy Peratrovich Jr. to write the story of Elizabeth’s life. This book is a quick read (only 80 pages), but it is definitely worth it.
Full of photos, letters, and memories, Fighter in Velvet Gloves gives us an inside look into the lives of Elizabeth and Roy Sr. Their work on behalf of Natives extended far beyond the anti-discrimination law. Elizabeth traveled all over Alaska to rally Native populations, and after the law was passed she and Roy Sr. fought to ensure that it was respected.
But Elizabeth was more than an activist. She was a passionate student, a good friend, a beloved wife, and – first and foremost – a loving mother. We see her through the eyes of her son, Roy Jr., and she steps off the page as the kind of woman whom we would all like to know.
For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska
In 2009, For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska aired for the first time. This hour-long documentary tells the story of the Alaska civil rights movement via interviews with activists, activists’ families, and scholars. It also includes scenes based on the lives of Elizabeth and other influential Alaska Natives.
The strength of this documentary is that it allows us to hear the voices of the Native people themselves. Alberta Schenk Adams describes how she went to jail for sitting in the “Whites only” section of the theater in Nome, Alaska. Tlingit poet Nora Marks Dauenhauer fights back tears as she recounts the racism she faced as a young girl. And Roy Peratrovich Jr. reminisces about his parents and their fight for equality.
You can watch For the Rights of All for free on this website. I highly recommend it!
Alaska Native Peoples: Resources
Reading about Elizabeth Peratrovich made me realize how little I know about the indigenous peoples of Alaska. I’m sure many of you are in the same boat as I am, so I am sharing a few resources to learn more about Alaska Native peoples. I would love suggestions for more materials, if anyone has any! 🙂 I am a novice in this area, but I want to learn more.
The Tlingit nation is just one of eleven distinct cultures present in Alaska. But since Elizabeth was Tlingit, I am focusing on this one nation here. You can start with a few paragraphs of history from the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. And then check out the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s website and YouTube channel! This non-profit organization promotes the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska.
The Sealaska Heritage Institute spearheads so many amazing literary, educational, and cultural initiatives. For instance, there is the Tlingit Oral Literature Series and – my favorite – the Baby Raven Reads children’s books. Recently they published a new book called Raven and the Hidden Halibut, written by Tlingit children and based on traditional oral narratives. Awesome, right? (If you want to hear one of the books in Lingít, the language of the Tlingit people, then you can listen to the audio on YouTube!)
Final Thoughts on Elizabeth Peratrovich
I hope that you are just as in awe of Elizabeth and her accomplishments as I am. And I hope that you will tell all your family and friends about her! She was a beacon of light in the midst of the ugliness of prejudice and racism, and she deserves to be remembered.
Read Fighter in Velvet Gloves – and if you have children, encourage them to read it, too. Watch For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska. No matter where you are from or what your heritage is, you will benefit from this beautiful story of a woman who did not give up even when all the cards were stacked against her.
Had you heard of Elizabeth before? What do you think of her inspiring story? Let me know in the comments!
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