First Nations Development Institute
For the fifth year in a row, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) will be closed in honor of Elizabeth Peratrovich Day on Friday, February 15, 2019 (Elizabeth Peratrovich Day is actually Saturday, February 16, but we'll be observing it the day before). First Nations, headquartered in Longmont, Colorado, is likely the first entity outside of Alaska to recognize this as an annual holiday.
Elizabeth Jean Peratrovich (Tlingit), who died in 1958, was an important civil rights activist who worked on behalf of equality for Alaska Natives. In the 1940s, she was credited with advocacy that gained passage of the Alaska territory’s Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945, the very first anti-discrimination law in the United States. To quote her at the time: “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 was responding to earlier comments by a territorial senator who 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?”
In 1988 the Alaska Legislature established February 16 as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day. First Nations President & CEO Michael E. Roberts (also Tlingit), who is from Alaska and related to Elizabeth, thinks organizations in the Lower 48 should also start recognizing this groundbreaking Native woman of national and even international significance.
“The election of Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS) highlighted what we have long known in Indian communities, that American Indian women have often led the way for Indian peoples," noted Roberts. "For Alaskans, Elizabeth Peratrovich has been our long-heralded civil rights activist, credited with the passage of the then-Alaska territory’s Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945, decades before the civil rights movement that outlawed Jim Crow laws in the rest of the United States. Her birthday, and First Nations’ observance of it, allows us to reflect on the courage and leadership that often goes unnoticed.”
According to the Anchorage School District, “Elizabeth Peratrovich Day provides an opportunity to remind the public of the invaluable contribution of this Native Alaskan leader who was an advocate for Native citizens and their rights. This courageous woman could not remain silent about injustice, prejudice and discrimination.” Further, in the school district’s board resolution of 2012, it was noted: “Her efforts came nearly 20 years before the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Because of her eloquent and courageous fight for justice for all, today’s Alaskans do not tolerate the blatant discrimination that once existed in our state.”
In 1940s in Alaska, it was not uncommon to see “No Natives Allowed” signs at stores and public accommodations, or even “No dogs or Natives allowed.” But those were simply the most visible manifestations of pervasive discrimination against the original Alaskans.
So even if you don’t observe the holiday like we do, please take a moment on Friday or Saturday to think of Elizabeth Peratrovich and the trailblazing effort she dedicated herself to in order to fight discrimination against some of our original Americans … and for the ultimate good of all Americans.