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Alaska celebrates the life and legacy of activist Elizabeth Peratrovich

Published: Feb. 16, 2021 at 5:44 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) -In 1988 the Alaska State Legislature declared February 16th to be Elizabeth Peratrovich day. A day for Alaskans to honor the memory of the woman who was the driving force behind the first anti-discrimination law passed in the United States. Elizabeth Peratrovich was a historically prominent Civil Rights activist, member of the Tlingit nation, and a leader in the Alaska Native Sisterhood, one of the oldest known indigenous led Civil Rights organizations in the world.

She along with her husband Roy Peratrovich representing the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, drafted and introduced an anti discrimination bill in 1941 after encountering discrimination preventing Alaska natives from securing housing and gaining access to public facilities, the bill initially failed to pass however.

In direct reaction to the bill, the Juneau territorial senator at the time, a man named Allen Shattuck asked, “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites, with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?” Peratrovich then responded with this, her most famous quote:

“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.”

After a period spent lobbying Alaska lawmakers to advocate for passing anti-discrimination legislation, the bill was signed into law by Governor Gruening in 1945, nearly 20 years before the passing of the Civil Rights Act.

Tia Tidwell, Assistant Professor at the UAF Department of Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development had this to say about the importance of reflecting on Peratrovich and her place in history.

“I think it’s a good day to take stock of Alaska Natives long history of successful political action, and organizing to benefit our people. I think we should be really proud that Alaska’s the first place that an anti-discrimination law was passed, and I think it’s a really good reminder of how important representation is in leadership. The anti-discrimination act didn’t pass until Alaska Natives were added to the legislature, so I just think it’s a really good day to take stock of the work that still needs to be done and how important representation is,” said Tidwell.

This year Elizabeth Peratrovich Day is being observed with a symposia presented by University of Alaska Anchorage Alaska Native Studies Students, which is available for viewing on their Facebook page.

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