By Edy Rodewald
SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) and other Alaska Native organizations take an annual paid holiday on February 16 to honor the life and accomplishments of Elizabeth Peratrovich. This date was established by the Alaska Legislature as the anniversary date of the signing of the Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945, a bill which Elizabeth, a Tlingit activist, is credited with getting passed.
A grand president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS) during the time that she lobbied to have the anti-discrimination bill passed into law, Elizabeth and her husband Roy lobbied passionately to eliminate the blatant discrimination policies faced by Alaska Natives. Until the bill passed, many Alaska businesses wouldn’t serve Natives and treated Natives as second-class citizens.
The bill faced harsh opposition in the Senate. One senator asked his fellow legislators, “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?” Elizabeth Peratrovich was listening from the Senate gallery and requested the opportunity to address the Senate from the gallery. In a calm voice she said, “I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with 5,000 years of recorded history behind them of our Bill of Rights.” When Elizabeth concluded her speech, the room burst into applause.
Elizabeth’s dramatic response to a Senator when asked if she thought the proposed bill would eliminate discrimination is legendary. She said, “No law will eliminate crimes, but at least you as legislators can assert to the world that you recognize the evil of the present situation and speak your intent to help us overcome discrimination.” Her extraordinary testimony was met with a wild burst of applause from the gallery and senate floor alike. The Alaska Senate passed the Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act on February 8, 1945 by 11for and 5 votes against the bill. This was the first such law passed anywhere in America, and ten years before Brown versus Board of Education. Elizabeth Peratrovich’s efforts helped to preserve equality and justice for all Alaskans regardless of race, creed, and ethnic background.