Elizabeth Peratrovich: Champion of Indigenous Rights and Equality

OV Digital Desk

Elizabeth Peratrovich (4 July 1911 – 1 December 1958) was an Indigenous rights activist and civil rights leader who played a pivotal role in the fight against racial discrimination in Alaska. She was born in Petersburg, Alaska in 1911, and was a member of the Tlingit Native American tribe.

Early Life And Education

Elizabeth Peratrovich, an iconic figure in the fight for civil rights, was born on July 4, 1911, in Petersburg, Alaska. Her Tlingit name was Ḵaax̲gal.aat, which means “person who packs for themselves.” Orphaned at a young age, she was adopted by Andrew and Jean Wanamaker, who raised her in the traditions of the Tlingit nation. Elizabeth grew up in various Alaskan towns, including Petersburg, Klawock, and Ketchikan, which enriched her cultural upbringing. She completed her high school education in Ketchikan and pursued higher education at Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, followed by the Western College of Education in Bellingham, Washington. Her formative years were marked by a blend of traditional Tlingit lifestyle and Western education, which later influenced her advocacy work for the rights of Alaska Natives.

Career And Achievements

Elizabeth Peratrovich most notable achievement was her instrumental role in the passing of the Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945, the first anti-discrimination law in the United States, nearly two decades before the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. As the Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, she fought tirelessly for equality and justice. Her advocacy efforts were recognized posthumously; in 1988, the Governor of Alaska established Elizabeth Peratrovich Day on February 16, commemorating the day the Anti-Discrimination Act was signed. Further honoring her legacy, in 2020, the United States Mint released a $1 coin bearing her likeness, and her obituary was featured in The New York Times’ “Overlooked No More” series. The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian houses the Peratrovich family papers, which include extensive correspondence and personal papers that shed light on the civil rights work undertaken by Elizabeth and her husband.

Notable Events And Milestones

Elizabeth Peratrovich orphaned at a young age, she was adopted by a Tlingit couple, which instilled in her a deep understanding of her heritage and the injustices faced by her community. Her marriage to Roy Peratrovich, who was of Tlingit and Serbian descent, further cemented her commitment to civil rights. Together, they would embark on a journey that would significantly alter the course of history for Alaska Natives. The catalyst for Elizabeth’s activism was the rampant discrimination she and her husband encountered in Juneau, Alaska. The blatant sign “No Natives Allowed” at a hotel door propelled the Peratroviches to challenge the status quo. They petitioned the governor of the Alaskan Territory, Ernest Gruening, and gained his support to combat racism and discrimination, marking the beginning of a relentless campaign for equality. Elizabeth’s eloquence and determination were instrumental in the passage of Alaska’s Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945, the first anti-discrimination law in the United States, passed on February 16, 1945. This landmark legislation was a testament to her unyielding advocacy and is celebrated annually as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day.

Beyond this legislative victory, Elizabeth’s legacy is profound and multifaceted. As the Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, she worked tirelessly to secure voting rights for Alaska Natives and played a role in the groundwork for the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which addressed the issue of land rights and compensation. Her efforts contributed to the broader civil rights movement, predating and influencing the national Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which eliminated discriminatory voting practices, can be seen as a continuation of the path Elizabeth helped to forge.

Elizabeth Peratrovich’s impact extended beyond legislation; she inspired generations to use their voices for change. Her advocacy demonstrated the power of oratory and peaceful protest in effecting social change. Her legacy is enshrined not only in the laws she helped to pass but also in the cultural shift towards a more inclusive society that she helped to initiate. Peratrovich passed away on 1 December 1958, but her legacy as a pioneer in the fight for Indigenous rights and civil rights in Alaska lives on.

Awards And Honors

  • Elizabeth Peratrovich was instrumental in the passing of Alaska’s Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945, the first anti-discrimination law in the United States.
  • In recognition of her efforts, Alaska Governor Steve Cowper established Elizabeth Peratrovich Day on April 21, later changed to February 16.
  • The U.S. Senate recognized February 16 as “Elizabeth Peratrovich Day” nationally for the first time in 2023.
  • In 2020, the United States Mint released a $1 coin inscribed with Peratrovich’s likeness to honor her historic achievements.
  • On 30 December 2020, Google Doodle celebrated Elizabeth Peratrovich.
  • Her obituary was added to The New York Times’ “Overlooked No More” series in March 2019.
  • The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian holds the Peratrovich family papers, which include correspondence and personal papers related to the civil-rights work done by Elizabeth and her husband.

Additional Resources

Books: “Fighter in Velvet Gloves: Alaska Civil Rights Hero Elizabeth Peratrovich” by Annie Boochever with Roy Peratrovich Jr. offers an in-depth look at her life and legacy.

Documentaries: “For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska” is a documentary that features Elizabeth Peratrovich’s contributions to civil rights in Alaska.

Museums: The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian holds the Peratrovich family papers, which include correspondence and personal papers related to Elizabeth Peratrovich’s civil rights work.

Online Resources: The Alaska Digital Archives provides access to photographs, oral histories, and other documents related to Elizabeth Peratrovich’s life and work.

Events: Elizabeth Peratrovich Day, celebrated on February 16th in Alaska, often features educational programs and activities that highlight her achievements and impact.