Elizabeth Peratrovich Day is February 16!
“Even after having years of history to look at and learn from, men of today still have to be reminded of basic rights that everyone deserves. People still act like they are savages even though civilization should have learned the lesson of equality long ago.” – Elizabeth Peratrovich
As Black History Month calls attention to civil rights, First Nations Development Institute also takes the time to acknowledge and celebrate a Native woman activist. On February 16, 2023, First Nations employees will take the day off and honor the life and activism of Elizabeth Peratrovich/Ḵaax̲gal.aat [qʰaχ.ɡʌɬ.ʔatʰ], a Tlingit civil rights hero and Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood who worked for equality on behalf of Alaska Natives.
Growing up Native
Born in Petersburg, Alaska, on July 4, 1911, Kaaxgal.aat was adopted as a baby by Andrew and Jean Wanamaker (née Williams), and given the name Elizabeth Jean. Traditionally raised, Elizabeth embraced the ways of her ancestors and learned the history of the Tlingit people. She fished salmon with her family, gathered berries, learned Tlingit ceremonies and stories, and grew up speaking the language of her people.
As a child, Peratrovich spent time with her father attending meetings of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood Grand Camp – the oldest known Indigenous peoples civil rights organization in the world at the time. Having been raised in the Alaska Native activism community, Elizabeth understood the important work being done to advance and support the rights of Native peoples. In her fight for equity of Native Alaskans, the Sisterhood would prove ancillary in their battle against discrimination.
Growing up in Southeast Alaska, Peratrovich faced the blatant discrimination in her day-to-day life throughout the community. At this time in our country’s history, American Indian/Alaska Native and Black people were often discriminated against. “No Dogs, No Natives” and “White Trade Only” were common sentiments in Alaska and many parts of the country, as was segregation and redlining. Outraged by these glaring acts of disrespect and bigotry, Elizabeth started her efforts to change the laws.
In 1945, Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovich, Sr., came up against the Alaska House of Representatives and Senate, where she is credited with advocacy that gained passage of the Alaska territory’s Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 – 14 years before Alaska would become a state and almost 20 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would be passed. It was the very first anti-discrimination law in the United States.
In 1988, Alaska Governor Steve Cowper established Elizabeth Peratrovich Day on April 21 to remember her commitment to bringing racial equality to Alaska. To honor the day the Anti-Discrimination Act was approved, the date of the celebration was later changed to February 16th, the day the bill was signed.
It is important to celebrate the life of all activist who fought for our right to exist. Elizabeth was a pioneering civil rights activist leading the charge for equity among all peoples of the United States and paving the way for other Indigenous women to be heard and become leaders. From Paulina Alexis (Reservation Dogs), Madison Hammond (the first Native player in the National Women’s Soccer League), to Faith Spotted-Eagle (Yankton Sioux Activist) and all our grandmothers, mothers, aunties, and sisters, Elizabeth made it possible for us to be here.
Join us in celebration
As you go about your day on February 16th, take some time to think about and acknowledge the legacy of Elizabeth Peratrovich, what she has meant to the anti-discrimination movement, and how a Native woman changed the course of history.
You can find Elizabeth now on the front of $1 coins and memorialized in bronze along with her husband Roy at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
To learn more about Elizabeth Peratrovich, visit:
ALSO: To celebrate Elizabeth Peratrovich’s life and activism, fellow Tlingit and First Nations President and CEO Michael Roberts led a virtual conversation on February 15, 2023. Access the recording here.
First Nations Development Officer