General Non-Fiction posted March 19, 2023

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Alaska Native Elizabeth Peratrovich

I, Who Am Barely Out of Savagery

by Faith Williams

Celebrate Women's History Month Contest Winner 

Elizabeth Peratrovich sat next to her daughter, Lori, waiting for the Senate proceedings to begin. She knit as her fellow Alaska Natives filed into the room and found seats. The room was abuzz with nervous energy. Elizabeth, her husband, Roy, and others had worked for years towards this day.

The governor of the Alaska Territory supported the undertaking from the beginning, but the first attempt to pass the anti-discrimination bill failed, not even making it out of the House. It had taken two years to get it that far. For the past two years, Elizabeth lobbied and encouraged fellow Alaska Natives to run for office. Earlier in the day, with representation, the bill passed the House.

Now a more difficult task lay ahead as no Alaska Natives sat on the Senate. A couple of senators supported the bill though more members fiercely opposed it.

As the debate increased in intensity and in length, more people gathered. When the room could hold no more bodies, the gallery doors remained open as the hallway filled with onlookers.

Senator Allen Shattuck of Juneau said, “Far from being brought closer together, which will result from this bill, the races should be kept further apart. Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?”

Members of the gallery shook their heads. The words only increased in nastiness.

“This bill is a lawyer’s dream and a natural way in creating hard feelings between whites and Natives,” argued Senator Frank Whaley of Fairbanks. “I don’t want to sit next to an Eskimo in a theater because they smell.”

Murmurs rippled through the spectators. Elizabeth continued to knit as the arguments from both sides rolled like thunder around her. 

Senator Doc Walker, a supporter of the bill, called upon Elizabeth’s husband, Roy, to testify in his capacity as grand president of the Alaska Native Brotherhood. Upon reaching the podium, Roy answered questions regarding his background, his education, and his right to speak for the Indians before the senators invited him to express his views.

“There is no doubt in my mind that discrimination against Indians exist. I need only point to the numerous harmful words and comments said here today.” Roy paused as his eyes surveyed the senators. “Only Indians can know how it feels to be discriminated against. Either you are for discrimination or you are against it accordingly as you vote in this bill." 

After two hours of contentious debate, the planned testimony was now complete. As was custom, Senator Edward D. Coffey stood. “We now open the floor to anyone who wishes to speak on this matter.”

Setting her knitting aside, Elizabeth rose. Acknowledged by the senator, the 5’5” Tlingit woman approached the podium in her white velvet gloves and matching hat. Her gaze swept the gallery before she turned to the white men sitting behind their wooden desks. Those in the gallery leaned forward to hear her words. 

In a calm voice, she opened with this statement, “I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind the gentlemen with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights.”

Her voice increasing in intensity, Elizabeth described the difficulty Alaska Natives had in obtaining decent housing. “When the owners learned we were Indians, they said no. Would we be compelled to lie in the slums?”

She continued with severe examples of discrimination her family and friends suffered daily from the denial of entrance to movie theaters, hotels, restaurants, and shops with signs that state ‘No dogs or Natives allowed.’ As she spoke about each incident, many Alaska Natives in the crowd nodded their heads.

Senator Shattuck rose and demanded, “Do you think this bill will end discrimination?”

"Do your laws against larceny and even murder prevent those crimes? No law will eliminate crimes but at least you as legislators can assert to the world that you recognize the evil of the present situation and speak your intent to help us overcome discrimination." 

A few of the senators shifted uncomfortably in their seats. 

“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.”

Applause erupted at the conclusion of Elizabeth’s address. As one newspaper, The Daily Alaska Empire, put it, the opposition to the bill ‘was forced to defensive whispers.’ The measure passed the Senate by a vote of 11-5.

On February 16, 1945, Governor Ernest Gruening signed the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 into law. The law provided “full and equal accommodations, facilities, and privileges to all citizens in places of public accommodations within the jurisdiction of the Territory of Alaska; to provide penalties for violation.” Those penalties included fines and jail time.

After the governor signed the bill, he turned and presented the pen to Elizabeth. “This is the most important piece of legislation passed in Alaska and will help the most in its development. It never would have passed without your speech.”

This was the first anti-discrimination law in the United States, enacted 19 years before President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Elizabeth continued in her fight against discrimination by challenging newspapers and their biased coverage of Alaska Natives and helping to revise the Alaska juvenile code. She fought against discrimination until her death from breast cancer in 1958 at the age of 47. 

In 1988, Alaska Governor Steve Cowper issued an executive proclamation that April 21 be known as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day. Later, the day was changed to February 16 to coincide with the signing of the bill. In 2020, the US Mint issued a one-dollar coin which commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Anti-Discrimination Act.

Celebrate Women's History Month
Contest Winner


There is no full text transcription of the Senate proceedings, including Elizabeth Peratrovich's speech. It was not customary for detailed notes to be taken at these proceedings at this time. Quotes can be found in newspaper articles, memoirs, and the like, but there are slight discrepancies. Some sections of Elizabeth's speech are reduced to a mere summary, such as her examples of the discrimination faced though the quote regarding housing is noted in several places. I find it difficult to believe that it's been over 75 years, and no one has managed to put together a more complete picture of her speech.

Yes, Elizabeth did knit as she did at most legislative sessions she attended.

You may read that New York was the first state to pass an anti-discrimination law. New York's Law Against Discrimination was signed on March 12, 1945, and took effect on July 1, 1945. In 1945, Alaska was still a US territory. (Alaska became the 49th state on January 3, 1959.) So, technically, NY was the first state to pass such a law, but their law was not the first one passed in the US.

The Tlingit are indigenous peoples of the Southeastern Alaska panhandle and British Columbia.
"Fighter In Velvet Gloves" by Annie Boochever with Roy Peratrovich, Jr., University of Alaska Press, 2019.

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