First Nations Celebrates Elizabeth Peratrovich Day, February 16!
“…asking you to give me equal rights implies that they are yours to give. Instead, I must demand that you stop trying to deny me the rights all people deserve.”
– Elizabeth Peratrovich, Tlingit
Strong Indigenous women are a traditional asset. We must respect women for the leaders they are, and continue to make space to highlight these extraordinary people. This includes our LGBTQIA+, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Black aunties and relatives and the beauty they bring to our world. Empowered women empower women, and without the support of our sisters our struggles will be that much harder.
Congruent with Black History Month, First Nations celebrates one of those powerful women, Tlingit civil rights activist and hero Elizabeth Jean Peratrovich/Kaaxal.gat.
At a time when women were revered as merely mothers and homemakers, Elizabeth hailed as an organizer and revolutionary, starting a grassroots movement that would help shape Indian policy and anti-discriminations laws as we know them today.
Born in Petersburg, Alaska, in July 4, 1911, Kaaxal.gat (Elizabeth’s Tlingit name) was an orphan who was adopted at a young age by Andrew and Jean Wanamaker (née Williams), and given the name Elizabeth Jean. She was raised in the traditional Tlingit way, fishing salmon, gathering berries, dancing ancient dances, learning the stories, and speaking the language (as well as English).
As a young Indigenous woman growing up in Southeast Alaska, Peratrovich faced the daunting discrimination that American Indian/Alaska Native and Black people dealt with during this time. “No Dogs, No Natives” and “White Trade Only” was a common sentiment in Alaska and many parts of the country, as was segregation and redlining. Outraged by these blatant acts of disrespect and bigotry, Elizabeth started her efforts to change the laws.
In 1945, Elizabeth 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, the very first anti-discrimination law in the United States. In 1988, the Alaska Legislature established February 16 as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day in remembrance of the day the bill was signed.
Upholding the Legacy
Sharing this important history and recognizing Indigenous women like Elizabeth is vital to continuing the progress that has been made in the last century. It is because of Native women like Elizabeth, Prophet and Warrior Lozen, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, Wilma Mankiller, LaDonna Harris, Suzan Harjo, Sharice Davis, and US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland that these paths have been paved, our Indigenous voices are being heard, and we are helping make a difference across our ancestral lands.
First Nations continues to honor the memory of Elizabeth through our programs and initiatives to help strengthen Indigenous communities and economies throughout Alaska and the lower 48. Elizabeth’s work to ensure equality in the face of injustice has helped forge the way for tribes and black communities to demand equal treatment under the law and shape policies that do not perpetuate systematic oppression. We welcome everyone in joining with First Nations in celebrating Elizabeth and all leaders of equity and inclusion everywhere.
First Nations Development Officer