Elizabeth Peratrovich, We Can Do It

Apayo Moore  Acrylic  2014

On July 4, 1911, a great American hero was born in Petersburg, Alaska.  Her name was Kaaxgal.aat.  She was of the L’ukwaax.ádi clan in the Raven moiety of the Tlingit nation. Her passion, perseverance, and tenacity led Alaska to become the first state or territory in the nation with an anti-discrimination act.  Although I’ve seen many articles stating New York was first, The Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 pre-dated The New York Human Rights Law by nearly a month.  It was signed on this day, February 18, 1945.

Orphaned at a young age, she became Elizabeth Wanamaker when adopted by a Presbyterian minister and his wife.  She went on to marry Roy Peratrovich, whose mother was Tlingit and father was Serbian.  Together, they formed one of the greatest civil rights power couples of the 20th century.  Roy became the mayor of their town, Klawock, and later held other positions in the territorial government.   They each became Grand President of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, respectively.

When they moved to Juneau to seek more opportunity after they both received college educations, they were met with racial discrimination.  They were unable to find adequate housing in an appealing neighborhood due to “no Native” policies.  Signs on local business read “no dogs and no Natives allowed.”  Like so much of this country at the time, discrimination was blatant and wide spread.

In 1941, Elizabeth Peratrovich petitioned the territorial governor, Ernest Gruening, to ban “No Natives Allowed” signs.  The Anti-Discrimination Act was defeated in 1943.  In 1945, their fight continued.  It was at this time Senator Allen Shattuck, who opposed the bill, said the following.  “Far from being brought closer together, which will result from this bill, the races should be kept further apart,” he said. “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind us?”

As the Grand President of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, Roy was asked to give testimony in front of the senate.  Roy testified, “Only Indians can know how it feels to be discriminated against. Either you are for discrimination or you are against it.”

When he was finished, time was allowed for anyone else to give testimony.  Legend has is it that Elizabeth put down her knitting and asked to speak.  She was the last to give testimony.  By all accounts, she was composed, confident, and extremely persuasive.  Her most powerful words though, came indirectly from Senator Shattuck.

“I would not have expected,” she exclaimed, “That I, who am barely out savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights.” She then went on to recount the discrimination she and her family faced.  When Senator Shattuck asked if she thought the bill would eliminate discrimination all together, this was her reply.  “Do your laws against larceny and even murder prevent those crimes?  No law will eliminate crimes, but at least you legislators can assert to the world that you recognize the evil of the present situation and speak your intent to help us overcome discrimination.”

When she concluded her testimony, the chamber broke out in thunderous applause.  The bill passed the senate and was signed into law.  It would be nearly 20 years before the Civil Rights Act took the same steps for the country as a whole.

Elizabeth Peratrovich died at the age of 47 of cancer.  In 1988, Alaska began to officially recognize February 18 as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day.  Her husband, Roy, died nine days before the day was officially celebrated.

To see the actual bill, click here: Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act

To read an in depth article by Dave Kiffer on the subject, click here:  Sit News

Apayo Moore is an Alaskan artist of Yup’ik heritage.  While continuing her education in Colorado, she became aware and gained more understanding of how Pebble Mine threatened her subsistence lifestyle in her home village near Bristol Bay.   She uses her artwork to educate and spread awareness about the possible destruction of her traditional way of life.

This painting is, of course, a riff on J. Howard Miller’s  traditional We Can Do It poster featuring Rosie the Riveter. Like Rosie, Elizabeth flexes her right arm while holding up her sleeve with her left hand.  While they both have a similar hairstyle held back by a red bandana, Elizabeth Peratrovich’s bandana and the red shawl around her shoulders includes a traditional representation of Tlingit art.

Instead of a plain yellow background behind her, a variation of the Seal of Alaska.  The boats on the water have been replaced by an oil rig.  The blue waters are muddied with black oil. A bulldozer full of dead salmon takes the place of the farmer and horses.

A variety of white staked signs dot the landscape.  They list names of Native Alaskan court cases against the state of Alaska and the Department of Natural Resources. Most prominent, HB77, is known as the Silencing Alaskans Act, which stripped the Alaskan people of their right to have any input on how their natural resources were used.   It passed in April of 2017.

Alaska-StateSeal

To learn more about Apayo, please visit her website here: Apayo Art

For more information on how to help protect Bristol Bay, please click here:  United Tribes of Bristol Bay

To learn more about HB77, watch this video: Silencing Alaskans

**Description of painting:  A yellow background.  In the foreground is a Native Alaskan woman.  Her black hair is bound in a red bandana tied at the top. The red handkerchief has a row of black stylized bird head outlines around the top. Her grey earring dangles from her right ear. The front of her hair peeks out beneath the bandana in a twisty curl on her forehead.

Her right arm is flexed, she makes a fist.  With her left hand she lifts up her black sleeve to reveal her bicep.  Around her shoulders is a red shawl with a large Tlingit bird depiction.  Near her neck is a very small button that says Pebble Mine with a red line through it.

Partially obstructed from view is the State of Alaska seal as described above.  A large blue text bubble above her with white text reads, “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.”  Elizabeth Peratrovich.

The painting is signed in grey in the lower left corner, Apayo 2014.**

**Description of Seal of Alaska:  A circular design of mountains, water, and farmland.  The yellow sun shines behind the mountain and reflects on the water.  In the foreground, a farmer plows a brown field with two horses.  On the water, two ships.  To the left, tall green trees with a white building.  Behind them, a train and a smelter.  Around the circle is a grey border that reads “The Seal of the State of Alaska” and has a small black and white drawing of a salmon and two seals.**

 

 

 

 

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