KETCHIKAN —Elizabeth Peratrovich’s name now stands over the theater in the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center, placed there by the U.S. Forest Service and the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood and revealed in an emotional ceremony on Thursday.
Peratrovich, born in Petersburg in 1911 as a Tlingit of the Raven-Sockeye clan, is celebrated for her role in the passage of the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945, one of the first of its kind in the United States, in territorial Alaska — a role that dozens of people honored during the ceremony renaming the theater at the downtown center.
The act, signed into law by territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening, outlawed discrimination in public accommodations, some of which at the time displayed signs saying, “No dogs or Natives allowed,” and started Alaska on a path of shedding bigotry in its common culture.
Then the grand president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood and the last member of the public to testify to the territorial Legislature about the law, Peratrovich is especially well-known for her stinging rebuke of lawmakers in the territorial Senate who questioned the civilization of Alaska Natives.
“I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights,” Peratrovich told senators in Juneau on Feb. 5, 1945.
Gruening signed the bill into law, accompanied by Peratrovich and her husband, Roy Peratrovich Sr.; Norman Walker, Edward Anderson and O.D. Cochran on Feb. 16 — the day that now bears her name in Alaska.
Peratrovich’s stature in Southeast Alaska — and in Ketchikan, where she spent part of her youth and where she graduated from Ketchikan High School — is approaching legend for her work to pass the bill.
Gov. Bill Walker nominated her to be the new face of the $10 bill. Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott called her a “figure of uncommon courage” who “underscores our nation’s singular democratic strength, which is the right of every individual to have a voice in their lives and their children’s future.”
Before an audience of more than three dozen people on Thursday — Elizabeth Peratrovich Day — members of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood, historians and Peratrovich’s granddaughter, Betsy Peratrovich, offered emotional tributes to the civil rights leader.
The renaming project was a collaboration between Discovery Center Director Leslie Swada and the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood.
Cecilia Tavoliero, president of Alaska Native Sisterhood’s grand camp, said Peratrovich was intelligent, courageous and the “right person in the right place at the right time” to carry the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 to passage in its 11-5 vote in the territorial Senate.
Betsy Peratrovich called the passage of the bill a “wonderful first step” in the fight against discrimination in Alaska.
Diane Benson, an assistant professor of Alaska Native studies at University of Alaska Fairbanks, told the audience about her history in Ketchikan and about the abuses once faced by Alaska Natives in an emotional speech.
She said Peratrovich’s “story of standing up infused my entire life,” and recalled periods when Alaska Natives were barred from speaking their own languages, reflecting on the fact that her young relatives won’t face the same bigotry.
“I have two grandchildren, one is 16 and one is 3. They can be proud of who they are without shame,” Benson said. “Unlike my grandparents, who were compelled to whisper the language in the house because they were afraid of what others might do to them.”
She talked about how friends didn’t survive the barrage of discrimination and hatred, how it “had left marks on my heart, and on my face,” and how things had since changed for Alaska Natives, who are working to restore their cultures and, especially, their languages.
“I get to talk words of peace now,” Benson said.
Peratrovich died on Dec. 1, 1958, in Juneau. On Feb. 6, 1988, the Alaska Legislature voted to name Feb. 16 in her honor.
This article first appeared in the Ketchikan Daily News and is reprinted here with permission.