“I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind the gentlemen with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights.”
The US Mint announced last week that it will honor Elizabeth Peratrovich, Tlingit, on the 2020 dollar coin. In 1945 Peratrovich gave a passionate speech to the Alaska Territorial Legislature that is credited with convincing legislators to adopt the Alaska Anti-Discrimination Law, the first such law in the United States. Peratrovich was Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood at the time.
At a dinner Friday evening, Tlingit Shirley Kendall, age 87, explained that concerns over citizenship and equal rights were the main reasons the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood were formed.
In the early 1900s schools were segregated, said Kendall. When the Indian school in Sitka closed, some parents sued to get their children enrolled in the white school. They had to prove they were “civilized.”
Kendall said whites brought in to testify were asked, “‘Do they [the Indians] have curtains in their windows? Do they have rugs on the floor? Do they cook their food in pots and pans?’ We failed a lot of those,” said Kendall.
But the deciding factor was, “One of the girls was caught trying to explain something to her grandmother in Tlingit,” said Kendall. “So that case was lost.”
Kendall said a dozen men were catalyzed by school segregation, the lack of citizenship, unlawful taking of Native lands, and overfishing to form the Alaska Native Brotherhood in 1912.
In 1921 under the leadership of William, Sr. and Louis Paul, the brotherhood fought for civil rights on several fronts. Wm Paul, Sr. successfully sued for the right to vote, years before American Indians were admitted to US citizenship. The brotherhood lobbied for the extension of the Indian Reorganization Act to Alaska, which opened the door for federal recognition of Alaska tribes. The brotherhood also adopted a resolution in 1929 to initiate land claims, a move that ultimately led to enactment of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.
Still, decades later, prejudice and racism against Alaska’s Indigenous people was the norm.
Schools, churches, and movie theaters were segregated. Juneau businesses posted signs, “We Cater to White Trade Only,” and “No Dogs or Indians Allowed.” Landlords refused to rent to Natives.
In February 1945, several territorial legislators spoke against a bill that would prohibit racial discrimination. They said it would aggravate the already hard feelings between Natives and whites; it wasn’t necessary; and the real solution was separation of the races.
Senator Allen Shattuck said, “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?”
When the public was given an opportunity to comment, Elizabeth Peratrovich said, “I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind the gentlemen with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights.”
The bill passed. Gov. Ernest Gruening signed it Feb. 16, a date now celebrated in Alaska as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day.
Saturday at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, US Mint Chief Administrative Officer and Acting Deputy Director Patrick Hernandez unveiled the design for the Elizabeth Peratrovich dollar.
“Next year it will be our great privilege to connect America to the powerful message of hope and perseverance in the face of discrimination,” said Hernandez. “We will proudly honor an Alaska Native who was a tireless advocate for Native peoples and an inspiration to the civil rights movement.
“These moments are so powerful,” responded Alaska Native Sisterhood Grand President Paulette Moreno. She said the commemoration shows,“We have been heard.… It is our ancestors and the children that are yet to be born whose voices and hearts have been heard. It is our ancestors that we stand with here today.”
Jackie Pata, Tlingit, former director of the National Congress of American Indians, said Peratrovich’s leadership didn’t end with the anti-discrimination law.
“As many of you know, she went on to fight for healthcare, for education rights. She went to NCAI, National Congress of American Indians… She became an executive committee member there and she fought for the rights of Alaska Natives to be members of that organization, which many of our tribes today participate in,” said Pata. “And today NCAI leads in areas of civil rights, voting rights, census, all of the things that we need to do today, together with other civil rights organizations.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the coin will bring Peratrovich’s story to the public and to national and international collectors.
“And when they read about her, they'll understand the courage, the determination that this amazing woman, this amazing Alaskan, quite frankly, this amazing American went through to get to the point where Alaska recognized that what it was doing was wrong and that this was an opportunity to make something right,” said Dunleavy.
In 2009 the United States mint began minting and issuing dollar coins featuring designs celebrating the important contributions made by Native American tribes and individual Native Americans to the history and development of the United States. The obverse, or heads side of the coins show Sacajawea, Lemhi Shoshone, carrying her infant son.
A likeness of Peratrovich and the words “Anti-discrimination Law of 1945” will be engraved on the reverse (tails) side of the 2020 gold-colored dollar coin. In the foreground will be a raven, drawn in the distinctive formline style of Pacific Northwest tribes. Peratrovich is of the Raven moiety.
The coin is the latest in a series of honors bestowed upon Peratrovich. A gallery of the Alaska House of Representatives has been named after her, and a bronze bust sculpted by her son Roy Jr. sits in the lobby of the State Capitol.
Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a longtime Alaska journalist.
(Indian Country Today, LLC., is a non-profit news organization owned by the non-profit arm of the The National Congress of American Indians. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently.)