PUBLISHED: 10:59 AM on Wednesday, February 9, 2005
Elizabeth Peratrovich Day
In Memory of Elizabeth Peratrovich's Many Contributions to Society

On February 16, Alaskans will celebrate Elizabeth Peratrovich Day. Named for one of the crusaders in the battle for native civil rights, the holiday is a reminder of the struggle Alaskan natives had to face to ensure that they received the same rights guaranteed natives in the rest of the land.

In 1924, Congress passed the 14th amendment, ensuring American citizenship to all native Americans. But because Alaska was only a territory at the time, Alaskan natives were not awarded these same rights. To right this wrong, the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) and Alaska Native sisterhood (ANS) decided to fight for their rights; led, in part, by Roy and Elizabeth Peratrovich.

"Prior to 1943, the ANB supported people who supported the issues that were important to the native community," explained John Hope, who knew both Peratrovichs well. "It was Governor Gruening who encouraged the ANB to take a more hands-on approach to politics; and to actually seek seats on the legislature."

While their elected representatives, including Andrew Hope, Frank Peratrovich, Frank Johnson and Al Widmark worked in the legislature to support the antidiscrimination act, other members of the ANB and ANS worked behind the scenes. Elizabeth Peratrovich worked with the newly created National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) to get the materials needed to pass the antidiscrimination act; Roy enlisted the support of other native communities, and lobbied them to take certain positions.

"Roy epitomized all the things that the ANB stood for, and together with Elizabeth, they made a great team," said Hope. "They probably debated and strategized on a lot of things unofficially at home; she was responsible in a large degree for his success."

Elizabeth was also responsible for the impassioned speech she gave on the floor of the Senate in 1945, which helped sway some lawmakers to support the passage of the Equal Rights Bill.

"I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights," she said. The Bill was signed on February 16, 1945.

While the bill's passage did result in the immediate removal of signs on storefronts which included "No dogs and no natives," and "We cater to white trade only," Hope said that people's attitudes did not change as quickly.

"It was a lingering thing; nonnatives had a hard time accepting it," explained Hope. "Discrimination became much more subtle. In the old days they used to be proud to kick us out of bars; now it's little things, like the fact that a park that was once named after a native athlete was renamed. Even though it may not have been intended to be racial, if you grew up addressing this issue, it pops out at you."

According to Hope, while he thinks that Elizabeth would be pleased with some of the changes that have taken place since the bill's passage, she would not yet be satisfied with the status quo.

"I think she would have been pleased with some of the progress she sees among us, but disappointed with society's failure to accept us," he said. "But it wasn't like she or Roy to complain; they'd take a position and make their presence felt."