Canku Ota


(Many Paths)


An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 24, 2001 - Issue 30



Play Celebrates Woman's Role as Native Rights Activist


by Rose Cox Anchorage Daily News

The protagonist of Diane E. Benson's play that debuts at the Alaska Native Heritage Center on Sunday is Elizabeth Peratrovich, a Tlingit woman who tipped the scales toward passage of a 1945 anti-discrimination law protecting Native rights.

The one-woman play capitalizes on the drama of a real-life story about one of Alaska's most influential civil rights activists. It's part of a celebration the center is holding in honor of Elizabeth Peratrovich Day, officially Feb. 16.

The play pivots on Peratrovich's eloquent argument for an anti-discrimination bill debated before the Alaska territorial legislature in February 1945.

Peratrovich sat as an observer in the gallery when senators argued passage of House Resolution 14, a bill mandating equal rights for Natives during a time when they were denied admission to movie theaters, restaurants and hotels.

Juneau Sen. Allen Shattuck, who opposed the bill, 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's resolute reply has become the Native equivalent of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech.

"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."

Peratrovich went on to win the day by detailing the evils of discrimination and the need for the bill. It passed by a vote of 11 to 5.

Benson, an actress, playwright and published poet, first researched her role 10 years ago. She interviewed two of Peratrovich's closest friends, including Ceceilia Kunz, for "When My Spirit Raised its Hands: The Story of Elizabeth Peratrovich and Alaska Civil Rights."

"I got a feeling of what it would feel like from Ceceilia, the emotional context for Elizabeth, the way it felt to be in that room and be part of the gallery."

Benson came away as enamored of Peratrovich the woman as the activist.

"She was a complex woman," Benson said. "She functioned well in the village, but she was also Western educated. She knew how to speak, how to dress in the fashion of the Western day, but she also knew how to live just fine at home with her own people in a traditional environment."

In addition to Benson's play, which employs audiotape of local actors playing the parts of the senators, Sunday's celebration includes comments by Elizabeth's granddaughter, Betsy Peratrovich; a panel discussion by Native leaders; and the debut performance of "Imarpiim Yua: Sea Spirit," a theatrical piece by Yup'ik artist Ossie Kairaiuak.

"I'm really excited to see the center get involved," said Betsy Peratrovich, Elizabeth's granddaughter. "It's almost like (Elizabeth Peratrovich Day) has a home."

Although former Gov. Steve Cowper designated Feb. 16 as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day in 1988, it wasn't until this year that the holiday has gone mainstream in Anchorage.

In addition to Sunday's celebration, the Anchorage School District has provided 600 local teachers with material about Peratrovich and ideas for incorporating her story into art, social studies and writing lessons.

"More and more people were saying, 'We need to recognize this lady and this time in history,' " said Edna Lamebull, coordinator of Indian education for the School District. "It was coming from a number of places. I think it shows it's more than a school thing -- it's a community event."

Schools are also being encouraged to take advantage of field trips to the center to see photos and memorabilia provided by the Peratrovich family. Performances of "Imarpiim Yua: Sea Spirit" are being offered to schools through the center's outreach program.

Peratrovich never met her grandmother -- she died from cancer in 1958 -- but as a grown-up she learned of her grandparents' role in Alaska history.

"Grandpa had a notebook of the letters he and Grandma had written. I saw that he was happy and proud to share that, and rightly so."

Her grandparents were united in the events leading up to passage of the anti-discrimination bill, along with their contemporaries in the Alaska Native Sisterhood and Alaska Native Brotherhood.

"The ANB and ANS were very powerful groups," Betsy said. "My grandparents happened to be at the helm."

In the early '90s Betsy spoke to classes at local schools and distributed copies of "A Recollection of Civil Rights Leader Elizabeth Peratrovich," a recounting of the Native civil rights movement published by the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood.

Not always comfortable with public speaking, Betsy drew upon her grandmother's courage.

"Can you imagine what it must have been like to be a woman in the 1940s in a room where some people had just said they don't want to sit next to people like you because you stink? She had the courage to do that. I try and remember that."

Reporter Rose Cox can be reached at

Women in Alaska's History-Elizabeth Peratrovich


Elizabeth Peratrovich

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