Three Alaska Native Leaders

Elizabeth Peratrovich: A Leader for Our Times

It is natural that a Tlingit woman would become one of the greatest leaders in Alaskan history. Tlingit culture is matrilineal, which means that children take their clan name, membership, and personal and cultural identity from their mothers. As a result, women are highly respected in Tlingit society, and expected to guide others along the proper path of personal and social action.

Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich, whose Tlingit name was Kaaxgal.aat, lived up to those expectations. She was a compelling equal rights advocate, the voice for social change and an opponent of civil injustices during the 1940s. Her willingness to accept a role as spokesperson during a landmark legislative hearing in 1945 ultimately decided the fate of all Alaskans.

Born July 4, 1911 in the island-fishing village of Petersburg, Alaska. Elizabeth was deeply rooted in her Tlingit heritage. Like her mother, she was of the Lukaax.'adi clan of the Raven moiety. But she was also heir to social injustices and racism, suffered by a people who had once ruled the land but had been relegated to minority status with the coming of Europeans and Americans. The situation was so bad that, before the passage of the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945, it was legal for businesses such as movie theaters, restaurants, and hotels to deny admission or service to Alaska Natives. Some businesses sported signs that read, "No dogs or Indians allowed."

Elizabeth's commitment to leadership derived from two sources. The first was her family, consisting of husband Roy and three children, Frank, Roy Jr., and Loretta. The second was pride in her Tlingit heritage. She was a devoted member of the Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS), an organization created to bring social and economic equality to Alaska Natives. ANS and its brother organization, the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) became actively involved in the political concerns of the Territory of Alaska, determined to eliminate discrimination and provide a better life for future generations.

Elizabeth Peratrovich was serving as ANS Grand Camp President when an equal rights bill was brought before the Territorial Legislature in 1945. She joined her husband Roy in the capital of Juneau, for the Senate hearing. Roy was scheduled to testify, but Elizabeth had planned merely to observe while seated in the gallery.

As the Senate began deliberating House Resolution 14, various senators spoke for and against the bill. One who outwardly opposed it asked, "Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites, with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind us?" The obvious division among the Senators provided hope to the Natives in attendance that a positive vote was possible.

But it wasn't until Elizabeth arose from her seat, placed herself next to the Senate President and spoke in a quiet but resolute voice that onlookers realized change was inevitable. Her intelligence, eloquence, and beauty were stark contrasts to the descriptions of "savages" heard earlier on the floor. She began, "I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind the gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights."

The impeccable timing of Elizabeth's presentation, though appalling to some of the senators, reverberated through the Senate and ignited the crowd. An awesome silence was followed by a wild burst of applause. Her convincing testimony, so impassioned, emotional, and genteel, was quickly followed by a vote of 11 to 5 in favor of the bill. A new era had begun for the Alaska Native people.

Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich died on December 1, 1958 of cancer. She will forever be remembered for her role in the 1945 senate hearing and her name will stand as a symbol of courage and leadership for all Alaskans.