Story last updated at 2/20/2013 - 2:02 pm
Elizabeth Peratrovich is the face behind the civil rights movement in Alaska. Strong. Beautiful. Visionary.
She and others in Southeast Alaska pushed for what was right - equal rights and anti-discrimination laws in Alaska. It is believed that her words before the Alaska territorial legislature turned the tide of the civil rights battle and garnered approval in the senate.
The Alaska State Museum in Juneau hosted a small exhibit in honor of Elizabeth Peratrovich for the holiday in her namesake - Feb. 16. The day not only honors the dedication and achievements of Elizabeth and her husband Roy, but also the work of many others.
The Peratrovich's were leaders in the Alaska Native Sisterhood and Alaska Native Brotherhood.
Gone are the days when signs reading "all white help" and "no Natives allowed" lined windows of shops and restaurants in Alaska.
Those days, and basically since the early 1800s, were and are considered the "dark ages" of Alaska Natives, said Barbara Cadiente-Nelson at lecture at the museum on Elizabeth Peratrovich Day.
"Today is a good day to commemorate the passage of the anti-discrimination act that was championed by so many social rights activists," she said.
"She was indeed made for that day," Cadiente-Nelson said. "Mrs. Peratrovich's testimony exemplifies a Tlingit value that our words have spirit and life. They tear down or they build up. Choose them wisely. Her words reverberate today because they are of truth. Speaking to what America stands for, the promise: the policies that all mankind is treated as equals. Being treated with respect, with dignity, and being afforded the same opportunity as others to achieve his or her dreams and aspirations. To live and learn and grow in a community that respects other ways of knowing, other ways of speaking, other ways of being. We, the people, believe this and such is the audacity of hope. That's why I believe each of you are here today, and I honor you for taking time out of your busy lives to respect the memory of Elizabeth Peratrovich and the passage of the anti-discrimination act."
Cadiente-Nelson said today we stand together to realize this ideal of equality, and they didn't stand alone in the "dark time."
"The act was passed because people from different walks of life held hands to lift up this ideal, this way of life that was already known and lived by people who are indigenous to this place we all call home," she said. "Indeed this is a day for celebration, it truly is. But my heart becomes heavy when I speak of racism and discrimination. Each of us has our stories. I know my father's story; I know my mother's story, my brother's and sister's stories, and I have my own. I know the stories of my classmates who were ridiculed and humiliated by their peers because of the color of their skin, because of their quiet and cultural mannerisms."
She recalled her family's experience with those times.
"In 1934, when my mother was 7 years old, she was taken from her home, her Village of Angoon, and placed in the Pious Tent Mission School in Skagway," Cadiente-Nelson said. "She was punished for speaking her first language, imagine that, a little 7-year-old girl asking in Tlingit for water and getting smacked, asking for comfort and getting reprimanded. She was also not allowed to speak to her brothers who were also placed in the same school."
She said her father had arrived in Alaska by the 1940s and he experienced not being able to go freely into certain Juneau establishments. He later opened his own restaurant, open to all, and later was the chef at the Baranof Hotel, where he prepared the banquet for the celebration of Alaska joining the Union.
"At the time of the passage of the act, there was skepticism given the many attempts to achieve equality in citizenship, in voting, in housing, in education for Alaska Natives," Cadiente-Nelson said.
Cadiente-Nelson is a lifelong educator and seeks to build a bridge - a way for neighbor to get to know neighbor. She has 12 grandchildren and considers all 5,000 children in the Juneau School District to be her children.
"I still ask this question today, who are we as Native people, Native and non-Native have lived together in our community for over a century, and yet there still exists a mystery of who Native people are and how we fit in a society today," Cadiente-Nelson said. "For many, this basic question may not cause much contemplation or hold any degree of significance. For Native people, however, it is a question that touches our daily lives. There is work for us to do as a family."
She asked who will stand with the people of Angoon, who are still awaiting an apology from the U.S. Navy for bombing the village, killing six children. She asked who would stand with leaders in Haines, Tenakee, Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan. Those communities were left out of the 1972 Native Claims Settlement Act, Cadiente-Nelson said, and are considered landless.
"How can that be?" she asked. "Who is standing with them?"
She also called attention to veterans, quality education for all children, the hungry and homeless, the tribal ancestors at the Douglas Indian Association and the earlier burning of the Douglas Indian Village.
"There's a word for standing together," she said. "There's a word for being together with one mind, it's called wooch.een. our children are watching us."
Sarah Day is the editor of Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at email@example.com.