Alaska history

Alaska Governor Ernest Gruening (seated) signs the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945. Witnessing are (left to right): O.D. Cochran, Elizabeth Peratrovich, Edward Anderson, Norman Walker, and Roy Peratrovich.

“I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind them, of our Bill of Rights.”

It was her Russian name that grabbed my attention as I was casually surfing websites, wondering how Alaskans celebrate Valentine’s Day. I stumbled on the following notice: “Every year on February 16, Alaskans honor Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich (1911—1958) for her courageous, unceasing efforts to eliminate discrimination and bring about equal rights in Alaska” (Alaska Statutes 44.12.065).

I quickly learned she wasn’t Russian at all, but an unnamed Tlingit (Lukaax.adi clan) orphan baby born in St. Petersburg on July 4, 1911. She was adopted by Andrew and Mary Wanamaker, also Tlingit, and named Elizabeth Wanamaker. In 1931, at the age of 20, she married Roy Peratrovich (1908-89), of Ketchikan, and the two of them spent their entire lives fighting for the civil rights of Alaska natives. She was one of the main driving forces in ensuring the passing of the territory’s Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945, which was the first anti-discrimination law in the United States.

On Feb. 16, Alaskans honor her memory with gatherings. Some visit the gravesite where she is buried alongside her husband.

Peratrovich has awards, monuments and buildings named in her honor, including the Elizabeth Peratrovich Award and the Peratrovich Gallery in the Alaska House of Representatives. A theater in Ketchikan’s Southeast Alaska Discovery Center is also named after her, and a park in downtown Anchorage is named for her and Roy.

On Feb. 6, 1988, the Alaska Legislature established Feb. 16 as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day, the day the Anti-Discrimination Act was signed in 1945.

Alaska did not attain statehood until 1959, but Peratrovich, her husband and the territorial legislature were decades ahead of the times in the long battle for equal civil rights in North America.

Your humble and aging liberal Yukon reporter is a tad embarrassed to admit he had never before heard her name, nor knew her courageous story, but that has changed.

From now on, whenever Valentine’s Day pops up out of a snowbank in mid-February like a lost and lonely holiday heart/fart, my thoughts will be of Elizabeth and what she accomplished for all northerners. Might even send a birthday card to St. Petersburg on the 4th of July to honour her memory.

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