Elizabeth Peratrovich (July 4, 1911, Petersburg, Alaska – December 1, 1958, Seattle, Washington) was an American activist for the fight for the rights of Native Alaskans. In 1945, she and her husband brought together the indigenous community of Alaska to ensure the approval of the first anti-discrimination law in the United States.
Born on July 4, 1911, in Petersburg, then a district of Alaska, Elizabeth was the biological daughter of an indigenous woman with her brother-in-law, an Irish man, who would leave Peratrovich in the care of the salvation army. Eventually, Elizabeth would be adopted by Andrew Wanamaker, who was a Presbyterian minister, and his wife Jean Wanamaker, who was a basket weaver. His adoptive father was one of the founding members of the Brotherhood of Native Alaskans, a non-profit organization formed to combat racism.
In his childhood he grew up in Sitka, speaking English and Tlingit. Then, at the age of 10, she moved with her family to Klawock, in this place she would meet her future husband, Roy Peratrovich, who was the son of a Balkan fisherman and a Tlingit woman. Their wedding took place in 1931. Her husband, Roy Peratrovich, would become the mayor of Klawock with a total of 4 terms. Roy was also the president of the Native Alaskan fraternity. Together they had three children: Roy Jr., Frank Allen, and Loretta Marie.
In 1941, the Peratrovich family moved to Juneau. Elizabeth is elected as president of the Native Alaskan sorority, as a counterpart, her husband was the president of the Native Alaskan fraternity. Together, they observed the injustices and discrimination that native Alaskans faced in a segregated society in which there were schools, hospitals, restaurants, and cemeteries exclusively for white people.For example, in 1941, in Douglas (just outside Juneau), the Peratrovichs witnessed a sign at the entrance of a hotel that said “Natives are not allowed”.For this matter the couple decides to write a letter to the then governor of the Alaska Territory, Ernest Gruening, in this writing they expressed the following: “The owner of the hotel does not seem to realize that the native boys are as willing as the white boys to give their lives for the freedom he enjoys”.
Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945[editar]
Governor Gruening adds to the claim of the Peratrovichs and decides to join the fight of the native Alaskans. In 1943, they send an anti-discrimination bill to the Alaska legislature, but it was not approved by the House of Representatives. In the next two years, the Peratrovich couple redoubled their efforts and began campaigning for more native Alaskans to secure seats in the legislature. For this, the marriage even left their children in an orphanage for a summer,Because they needed to travel throughout the entire state, then considered a United States territory.
A new anti-discrimination bill is presented in the legislature, this time, the results would be different. After campaigning for more indigenous representation in the chambers, two Alaskan natives had been elected, in this way the project succeeded in passing deputies.By February 4, 1945, the bill was in the Senate. One of the senators, Allen Shattuck, opposed the law, justifying that this would aggravate racial tensions instead of improving them, expanding on, he redoubled saying: “Who are these people, just out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with 5,000 years of civilization recorded in our history? “.
When the doors of the legislature were opened for public comment, Elizabeth stands up and expresses in response to Allen Shattuck’s comment: “andOr I wouldn’t have expected someone like me, barely out of the wild, would have to remind gentlemen with 5,000 years of civilization about the existence of the United States Bill of Rights. “.Finally, the law is approved. Governor Gruening signed the law on February 16, 1945, becoming the first anti-discrimination law in the United States.
Alaska’s anti-discrimination law of 1945 guaranteed that all Alaskans enjoy public spaces. It also banned discriminatory signs.
All documentation, including correspondence and legal papers related to the fight for rights carried out by Elizabeth and her husband are in the National Museum of the American Indian.
In 2020, the United States Mint published a 1 dollar coin, with the face of Elizabeth Peratrovich.Also, one of the galleries of the Alaska House of Representatives bears his name. In addition, there is a bronze sculpture of her, sculpted by her son Roy, in the lobby of the Alaskan capitol.Every February 16, Alaska celebrates Elizabeth Peratrovich’s Day.
Elizabeth passed away at age 47, on December 1, 1958, in Seattle, Washington. She suffered from breast cancer. She rests in the Evergreen Cemetery in Juneau with her husband.