Local leaders unveiled a new mural July 4th in Petersburg, honoring Native civil rights leader Elizabeth Peratrovich. It was one of only a few in-person events for Petersburg’s Independence Day.
Peratrovich was born in Petersburg on July 4, 1911. One hundred and nine years later helpers pulled down a persistent covering over her newly painted likeness.
Local resident and Petersburg Indian Association tribal council vice president Brenda Norheim welcomed a small gathering in front of the Petersburg courthouse.
“Although we know that it took the hard work and voices of many Alaska Natives for the passage of the anti-discrimination law in Alaska, it was the strong powerful poignant words of Elizabeth Peratrovich that had the lasting impact on our territorial Senate that day in 1945 that sealed the passage of the 1945 anti-discrimination law in Alaska,” Norheim said. “Here we are, 75 years later, recognizing this amazing bold, woman in her birthplace, as a community. And I just think that’s awesome.”
The mural highlights Peratrovich’s role in the passage of the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945, which made it illegal to discriminate based on race. She and her husband Roy lobbied for passage of that bill, initially proposed by the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood.
“I’m very proud today to stand before you with this beautiful mural that was done with love and respect for a lady who fought for our civil rights in the beginning and she fought for the children to get better education,” said Barbara Erickson, president of the local chapter of the ANS. “She fought for Native people to have better homes, better jobs, all those things that we are still fighting for to this very day, not to the same degree but the fight still goes on. And I’m very proud to be a part of that organization that her father Andrew Wanamaker founded.”
Speakers also called for more unity in Petersburg and for more symbols of Native culture and place names here. Several speakers also mentioned Amy Hallingstad, originally from Haines. She moved to Kake and then Petersburg and was also noted for her work in seeking civil rights in the middle of last century.
Janine Gibbons painted the mural and told of some of the history she uncovered during her research for the work.
“Native women played an important role in uplifting their families,” Gibbons said. “Early on each summer Tlingit women paddled from Kake to work in Petersburg’s canneries but they did not receive equal pay. Elizabeth Peratrovich, Amy Hallingstad and a Norwegian, Dorothy Hofstad worked to bring the AFL-CIO union to Petersburg and with it better pay for Native women.”
Another speaker was Diane Benson who moved to Petersburg. She’s a scholar and actor who has portrayed Peratrovich and has also sought political office at the state and national levels. She spoke of the symbol that would be raised on the courthouse in honor of Native culture. But she also spoke about the work left to do.
“Today we have the majority per capita of Native men filling our prisons.,” Benson said. “We still have, even though we have corporations and money and that image of having great health and through our health corporations, through our Native corporations and dividends, the majority of our people are without still and struggling to have the rights to subsist, still, struggling to not be called names in school, still, struggling not to be marginalized, still. So we do have work to do. It’s an ongoing thing. It’s not a one time thing.”
The mural has not yet been installed. That will happen at a later date after the courthouse is done receiving a new coat of paint. The Petersburg Arts Council is still accepting donations for that project.