Elizabeth Peratrovich

Tlinget Activist

On February 6, 1988, the Alaska Legislature established February 16th (the day in 1945 when the Anti-Discrimination Act was signed) as "Elizabeth Peratrovich Day," in order to memorialize the contributions of Peratrovich "for her courageous, unceasing efforts to eliminate discrimination and bring about equal rights in Alaska."

Elizabeth Peratrovich was born on Independence Day, July 4, 1911, in Petersburg, in the Panhandle region of the District of Alaska. She was the daughter of a Native woman named Edith Tagcook Paul and her mother’s Irish brother-in-law, William Paddock. The unmarried mother traveled to Sitka to have her baby, who was then left in care of the Salvation Army. The baby was adopted by a Tlingit couple, Presbyterian minister Andrew Wanamaker and his wife Jean, a famed basketweaver. Wanamaker was an honorary charter member of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, founded in 1912, at a time when Alaska Natives were not U.S. citizens, could not own title to land and could not send their children to local schools. The aim of the group was citizenship and equality, and for the first half of the 20th century the Alaska Native Brotherhood was the only such group representing Alaska Natives.

The Wanamaker family lived in Sitka until Elizabeth was 10 years old, when they moved to Klawock, a Native village on Prince of Wales Island, about 60 miles west of Ketchikan. She learned to speak both Tlingit and English, graduating from the public high school in Ketchikan.

Klawock was the hometown of Roy Peratrovich, the son a Tlingit Indian woman and a man of Yugoslav descent. Roy worked as a trapper, fisherman, and boat captain, and in 1931 he and Elizabeth were married and returned to Klawock, where Roy worked as a policeman, postmaster, and the village mayor for four terms, while Elizabeth raised their three children, Roy Jr., Frank Allen and Loretta Marie. In 1940 Roy was elected Grand President of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, and the Peratroviches moved to the Alaskan Territorial capital of Juneau with their young family in order to be more effective in regional political issues. Despite being granted American citizenship in 1924, Native people were not welcome in the larger towns and Native children were still not allowed to attend public schools. Signs announcing "Natives not welcome" or "We cater to white trade only" reminded Alaska's First People that a large segment of the population deliberately shunned them in their own homeland.

One day in December, 1941, Roy and Elizabeth, who was by then Grand Vice President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, a counterpart to the Brotherhood, passed a sign on a hotel in a nearby town with a sign on the door which read, 'No Natives Allowed,’ spurring them to write a letter to the Territorial Governor, Ernest Gruening, referencing the Second World War and stating in part: “In the present emergency our Native boys are being called upon to defend our beloved country, just as the White boys. There is no distinction being made there, but yet when we try to patronize some business establishments we are told in most cases that Natives are not allowed,” and “We know that you have the interest of the Native people at heart and we are asking that you use your influence to eliminate this discrimination, not only in Juneau or Douglas, but in the whole Territory.”

Their letter signaled the start of Roy and Elizabeth’s campaign to fight discrimination in Alaska. Govenor Gruening agreed with their position, and aided their effort. In 1943, they attempted to usher an antidiscrimination bill through Alaska’s Territorial Legislature, but the bill failed, with a tied vote of 8-8 in the House.

Nearly 20 years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Tlinget activist Elizabeth Peratrovich and her husband Roy led the charge in passing the very first anti-discrimination law in the United States.

Undaunted, the Peratroviches traveled across the territory urging Natives to get involved, to run for political seats, to challenge the status quo and work toward change.

In 1944 Elizabeth was elected Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, and by 1945 two Native Alaskans had been elected to the Territorial Legislature, including Roy’s brother Frank, and a new antidiscrimination bill was before them. The House passed it, and reached the Senate floor on February 5, 1945.

An article in the March 20, 2019 New York Times explained what happened next: “Senator Allen Shattuck argued that the measure would ‘aggravate rather than allay’ racial tensions.

“‘Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?’ he was quoted as saying in Gruening’s 1973 autobiography, 'Many Battles.'

“When the floor was opened to public comments, Peratrovich set down her knitting needles and rose from her seat in the back. Taking the podium, she said: ‘I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind the gentlemen with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights.’

“She gave examples of the injustices that she and her family had faced because of their background and called on the lawmakers to act. ‘You as legislators,’ she said, ‘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 calm, measured, and eloquent testimony shamed the opposition into what The Daily Alaska Empire termed a “defensive whisper.” The gallery broke out in “a wild burst of applause,” and the 1945 Anti-Discrimination Act was passed by a vote of 11 to 5. Governor Gruening signed the bill into law on Feb. 16, a date now honored by the state each year. The new legislation entitled all Alaskans to “full and equal enjoyment” of public establishments, set a misdemeanor penalty for violators of the law, and banned posting of discriminatory signs based on race.

Territorial Governor Gruening signs the legislation, Feb. 16, 1945. L to R: Sen. O. D. Cochran, Elizabeth Peratrovich, Rep. Edward Anderson, Sen. Norman Walker, and Roy Peratrovich. 

[Alaska State Library]

In 1954, Roy Peratrovich accepted a position with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and the family moved to Oklahoma. Two years later Elizabeth learned that she had breast cancer, and they returned to Juneau. When her illness worsened, she was admitted to a Christian Science care center in Seattle, where her son, Roy Jr., was attending college. She died on Dec. 1, 1958, at the age of only 47, and was buried in Juneau’s Evergreen Cemetery.

Elizabeth’s son, Roy Jr., would become the first Alaska Native to be registered as a professional civil engineer, designing the original Brotherhood Bridge over the Mendenhall River near Juneau. The Brotherhood Bridge symbolized the bridging of the gap between Native and non-Native Alaskans, and among those attending the dedication of the original Brotherhood Bridge were his father, Roy Sr. who represented the Alaska office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and his uncle, Frank Peratrovich, a state senator from Klawock.

A gallery of the Alaska House of Representatives has been named in honor of Elizabeth Peratrovich, the only one named for someone other than a former legislator, and a bronze bust sculpted by her son Roy Jr. is in the lobby of the State Capitol. In 2018, Elizabeth Peratrovich was chosen by the National Women's History Project as one of its honorees, and in 2020 the United States Mint will commemorate her legacy on a one dollar coin. ~•~