My Turn: Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich remembered

  • Monday, February 15, 2016 1:00am
  • Opinion

When most of you hear the name Elizabeth Peratrovich, your first thought is likely that she was the civil rights advocate who made history with her speech to the Alaska Territorial Legislature. I think of her, first and foremost, as my Grandaunt. I have had the privilege of learning, through personal contact and family anecdotes, that influencing people to become their best was a way of life for her. Her public civil rights work was a manifestation of her life’s work.

When Elizabeth would come to our house to visit my mother and father and recruit their help on the ANB/ANS issues of the time, she always took time to talk with me. “What are you learning in school now, Randy?” she would ask. Then, after my account, she would say: “That is very important. You must study hard and do well, because education is important. Education will make you strong.” Succeeding in school as an Alaska Native in my time was not the easiest road and yet I pursued education diligently. I know Elizabeth’s encouragement formed my conviction that education is the means to success.

During World War II, my uncle Sam Wanamaker was too young to enlist to serve his country. His older brother William was serving in the Coast Guard in the Pacific and Sam wanted to do the same. He was 17 years old at the time and my grandparents wouldn’t sign his enlistment papers. Out of the blue, Elizabeth called Sam. She told him to report to work the next day to join a crew surveying the North Douglas road as a military project. Later Sam told me he had no idea how she knew of his desire to serve our country, or even that he was available to work. He only knew, as he said: “You just did what she told you to do.”

When I was about 10 years old, the Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 had been in effect for years. During a meeting, I listened to a group of men speaking angrily about how it had not changed how Natives were being treated. Even at my age, I could tell they were agitated and wanted to do something out of anger. I heard Elizabeth tell them: “That’s not the way to change things. We have to educate them, for them to change.”

Elizabeth may be remembered for the speech she gave to legislators considering the Anti-Discrimination act, but I will remember how she believed in the best of people all the time. As I think about her life, I realize that it’s what we do every day, not just the day our actions are remembered, that makes us “leaders” or “heroes.” As you celebrate Elizabeth Peratrovich Day this year, I hope you think of that woman who would ask a boy about school, find a way for another boy to serve his country, and counsel grown men that change would come through education, not retaliation. When we are our best selves and we see the best in others, then we breathe life into the civil rights ideals embodied by Elizabeth Peratrovich.

• Randy Wanamaker is a Juneau born Tlingit business leader and former Juneau School Board and Assembly member.

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