Living a Civil Rights Legacy

Guest Blogger Lauren Elizabeth Roberts Reflects on her Revolutionary Great-Great-Great Aunt, Elizabeth Peratrovich

Lauren Elizabeth Roberts is a second-year student at the University of Denver studying Chemistry and Economics. She is an enrolled Tlingit Tribal member and the youngest daughter of First Nations’ President and CEO Michael Roberts.

Elizabeth Peratrovich is unyieldingly understood to be a civil rights leader on par with names like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X.

A Tlingit woman, she is credited for the passage of the first anti-discrimination bill in the Alaskan territory. Her speech before the territorial senate, the last given on the bill, drew on her experience with explicit segregation on her traditional homelands. The senate, by one account, “was forced to a defensive whisper” at the closing of her speech.

This assessment is not a surprise to anyone with Tlingit women in their family. I know I’ve held this sentiment about my shátx̱, my older sister, more than once. As a long-standing matriarchy, Tlingit society has an affinity for producing emboldened and outspoken women and so, in every definition, Elizabeth Peratrovich was a woman of her time. The time, however, being 1945.

While the specific causes of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States cannot be embodied by one event, American history likes to draw a line in 1950 between the end of the post-war effort and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. The landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which began the desegregation of schools, wasn’t handed down until 1954. What makes Elizabeth Peratrovich such a unique and important leader is the timing of her success. Her actions were a revolutionary catalyst for a movement that didn’t have momentum for another decade or so.

I am Lauren Elizabeth Roberts, the namesake of my great-great-aunt, Elizabeth Peratrovich. While I do say this to brag about her (and, by extension, myself), I say it primarily because I grew up hearing about and living her legacy. Elizabeth Peratrovich is, most plainly, the forgotten of the Civil Rights Movement. Although her effect is clearly important, her name isn’t recognized outside of Alaska. Moreover, although she was raised in a Tlingit family, she was adopted very young, disrupting the web of lineage. And so, I stand in a unique and privileged position to claim direct, traceable ancestry to Elizabeth Peratrovich.

But this position comes with incredible irony. Based on my photo in this blog post, it’s not unclear that I experience privilege in another, more notable way. As a remarkably white passing Tlingit woman, I have often been considered to be more intelligent, qualified, or appropriate in my schools, jobs, and leadership positions than many of my Indigenous peers. I am not stopped at airports, followed in department stores, or academically discounted at my predominantly white university. In relation to my Indigenous peers, and even to my family who are similarly related to Elizabeth Peratrovich, I benefit from the same prejudice that she is commended for overcoming.

Elizabeth Peratrovich

It’s not news to any Native person that this kind of prejudice still exists. But I think it’s important to understand it in the context of our civil rights history – Even though we were ahead of the civil rights curve, those who made significant progress for Indigenous people are forgotten because of their Indigeneity.

The reason I am disproportionately assigned high moral character is the same reason my direct and inarguably more powerful ancestor is forgotten for her accomplishments. Elizabeth Peratrovich put it best, “I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights.” While I can confidently trace my sarcasm back to my ancestor, I can also trace my success to the same issues she was fighting against almost a century ago.

This double standard is a result only of the lack of information it produces, and spreading information that history has forgotten is one of the most effective acts of modern anticolonial resilience. Learning about the Indigenous people that American Civil Rights history doesn’t want you to know about is the most streamlined and effective way to understand and effectuate anti-colonial change and to begin to take back the history that has and always will belong to Indigenous revolutionaries – revolutionaries like ax̱ aat, my aunt.

Lauren Elizabeth Roberts

Learn more about Elizabeth Peratrovich: