This portrait of Elizabeth Peratrovich hangs in the Petersburg Indian Association building. It was painted by Alaska Native artist, Janine Gibbons of Petersburg. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

This week, Alaska Native Civil Rights activist Elizabeth Peratrovich was the first Alaska Native to be minted on a U.S. coin. Peratrovich was Tlingit and her hometown of Petersburg is gearing up for a celebration this Sunday marking the 75th anniversary of her famous testimony to the Alaska Legislature. KFSK’s Angela Denning reports:

“No Natives or Dogs allowed”. That message was posted on signs in Alaska before the 1940’s. Back then, there were segregated schools for Alaska Natives.

But Alaska, as a territory, was also the first in the nation to confront that kind of discrimination through law. The first anti-discrimination law in the U.S. passed in Alaska in 1945, in part, because of a moving speech that Elizabeth Peratrovich gave to the Alaska Legislature. On that day, there was an equal rights bill on the Senate floor and it had some opposition. A similar bill had died a few years before. Some senators still supported segregation as a way to prevent “mixed breeds” and said the bill would just bring hard feelings between the races.  

Peratrovich challenged that view saying, “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 or Rights.”

She went on to talk about discrimination that she and others had experienced. There was loud applause when she finished.

“She was the face of the movement,” said Tracy Welch, Tribal Administrator of Petersburg Indian Association. “She was really the person who was credited with bringing forward the civil rights movement to Alaska and nationwide. It was the first anti-discrimination legislation passed in the US and that’s something to be celebrated.”

Petersburg’s tribe and the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Petersburg are teaming up with the local arts council in a celebration day. There will be a parade followed by a potluck, music, dancing, and a reading of Peratrovich’s speech.

Barb Erickson is the President of the Petersburg branch of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, which along with the Brotherhood is the oldest known indigenous civil rights group in the world, formed in 1912. Erickson says Peratrovich was part of their movement, advocating for fairness.

“The ability to vote, for one,” Erickson said. “The ability to not be segregated in certain places, the ability to have an education equal with other people, because before that they had the native schools, so we can all have a better education as a result of what she fought for.”

The parade will start at 1:30 p.m. near the Trading Union downtown. Participants are encouraged to gather at 1 p.m. The parade will march to the John Hanson Sr. Hall at 1st and Gjoa Street.

Sarah Hanson-Hofsetter is with the Petersburg Arts Council and is helping coordinate the celebration program. Here she explains what is planned:

Hanson-Hofstetter says she’s learned a lot about Peratrovich’s life through a book and a film. The film, For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska, is about the civil rights activist. The book, “Fighter in Velvet Gloves” was co-written by Peratrovich’s son, Roy. The local arts council will be giving out a dozen of the books during the celebration.

Erickson says it’s her hope that in the future other native rights activists like Amy Hallingstad will also be recognized for their work as well. Hallingstad was a Petersburg resident who tore down segregation signs and started the constitution and bylaws for Petersburg’s tribe.

Erickson will be leading the parade on Sunday. She says everyone is invited to march with her. They’re encouraging people of all cultures to dress in their regalia or traditional clothing.

We want all the community members to come and join our parade,” Erickson said, “you can just join in.”

Welch says the event not only celebrates the equal rights that Peratrovich and others fought for but also recognizes that discrimination still exists.

“Discrimination isn’t over,” Welch said. “This is something that is evolving and so having this big event is just a continuation of that and it provides a forum for people to continue that conversation.”

This is a mock up of the Elizabeth Peratrovich mural planned for the outside of the Petersburg Courthouse. Artist, Janine Gibbons of Petersburg, is working with the Petersburg Arts Council on the project. (Image courtesy of the Petersburg Arts Council)

Petersburg has also received the go ahead from the Alaska Court System to erect a mural of Elizabeth Paratrovich onto the outside of the courthouse building.

The project is in fundraising stage right now with the plan to unveil the mural in May.  

[Editor’s Correction to the celebration day program: Brenda Norheim of Petersburg Indian Association will be speaking at the event, not Cris Morrison.]