About 200 people packed the Ketchikan High School commons on Thursday evening to celebrate the life and legacy of Kaaxgal.aat Elizabeth Peratrovich with the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood Camp 14.
Alaska Native Brotherhood Vice President Yeił Atoowu Ginger McCormick, chair of the committee that organized the event, said that folks from all corners of the community came together to honor Peratrovich, an Alaska Native civil rights icon.
"It's all about bringing Elizabeth home," McCormick told the Daily News after the event. "Elizabeth would be flourishing here in this joy."
Peratrovich was Tlingit of the Lukaax̱.ádi clan, born in Petersburg in 1911. She graduated from Ketchikan High School in 1931 and also grew up in Klawock.
Ketchikan School District Cultural Coordinator Dl'a Gwa T'awaa Teresa Varnell collaborated with ANB/ANS Camp 14 to host the event.
"The reason why we paired together is that we have such like interests and investment in our communities, love for our communities and the magic that we start to see happening in the way that we collaborate with each other," Varnell told the crowd.
Students from Point Higgins Elementary, Fawn Mountain Elementary, Houghtaling Elementary, Ketchikan Charter School and Tongass School for Arts and Sciences opened the Thursday event with a Welcome Chant that Varnell gave to the school district. As some 50 students warmed up their handmade drums ahead of the event, Varnell said they would be "bringing life into the drums."
Yéil Yádi Nathan Jackson, also of the Tlingit Lukaax̱.ádi clan, honored his relative Peratrovich with a song on harmonica.
Elected officials from Ketchikan Indian Community, Saxman I.R.A. Tribal Council, the City of Saxman, the City of Ketchikan and Ketchikan Gateway Borough signed a joint proclamation that acknowledged Peratrovich's substantial contributions to the region, state and nation.
Ketchikan Gateway Borough Mayor Rodney Dial read the proclamation: "Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich was a civil rights activist who advocated on behalf of Alaska Natives. ... In 1941 Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovich petitioned the territorial governor to prohibit public places from posting "no natives allowed" signs that were prominent in Alaska during the time.... Elizabeth worked to pass Alaska's anti-discrimination act to ensure that everyone would be given equal opportunity. ... This bill adopted in 1945 was the first anti-discrimination law passed in the United States. This legislation was signed into law nearly 20 years before the United States Congress approved the Civil Rights Act in 1964."
The State of Alaska's Feb. 16 holiday designated for Elizabeth Peratrovich recognizes the day that former territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening signed the 1945 anti-discrimination act into law after the Peratroviches spent years organizing support to move the bill through the Alaska Territorial Legislature.
Throughout the celebration on Thursday, children laughed and played in the high school commons. Young people served elders blanched herring eggs coming out of the kitchen. Guests formed a line to fill a plate with snacks.
Kayhi culinary arts teacher Cameo McRoberts baked a pineapple upside-down cake large enough to feed all the guests. McRoberts also produced a large banner that includes a historical timeline and information about Peratrovich, and was unfurled from a balcony above the commons.
Long-time Alaska Native Sisterhood Camp 14 Treasurer Cynthia Llanos told the Daily News that the community demonstrated more support for this year's celebration than any previous Elizabeth Peratrovich Day event that the Brotherhood and Sisterhood has coordinated. In recent years, Camp 14 hosted gatherings in the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center.
"There are more people here than could fit at the Discovery Center," Llanos said. "I like the way the kids are involved because it's reaching more of the public. ... The community can come in and you can share information with them, or the kids can turn it around and teach you."
"It's important for the kids to know that someone who went to school here talked before the Legislature and got them to enact a law that made life better for everybody," Llanos said.
Kayhi history teacher Peter Stanton delivered a speech to the importance and impact of Peratrovich's life work. Stanton began by addressing "haa shagoon," a Tlingit cultural concept that he said is sometimes translated to mean "our history."
"Shagoon has a deeper meaning in the Lingít culture and the word can be translated as heritage, origins, where we come from. It's even been translated as everything we've ever been, everything we are right now and everything we are going to become," Stanton said.
Stanton recognized Peratrovich's "heritage and her legacy that we are all still living out today."
"I can't help but thinking about the world she was born into in 1911," he said.
Lingít Aaní, the lands of the Tlingit people, experienced an "unprecedented time of chaos, turbulence and transformation, ... the effects of which we are still dealing with in our society today," Stanton said.
"Indigenous families, houses and clans had been devastated by diseases and continue to be disproportionately impacted by major health problems," Stanton said. "A new educational system and system of religious beliefs were forcibly implemented."
Stanton said Indigenous people responded by demonstrating another core cultural concept: haa latseen, our strength as human beings.
"Indigenous communities throughout Southeast Alaska became incredibly strong, and that strength is still with us today. They survived, they endured, they adapted and they thrived through the tragedy, chaos and change that was brought to this land," Stanton said.
"Indigenous Alaskans found where they could take advantage of and benefit from the legal, economic, political and social systems that were imposed upon them," Stanton said. "Many young people learned as much as they could from the American educational system and then they used that knowledge to fight for their rights, their culture and their lands."
"Kaaxgal.aat is a shining, ever-inspiring example of that strength, haa latseen, as shown in her courageous leadership within the Alaska Native Sisterhood, her incredible political advocacy and ability to challenge prejudice, her famous and powerful oratory, her success as a mother and so many other roles and victories. She is the most famous fighter for social justice of her generation, and deservedly so, though she is not the only fighter for justice, before or since," he continued.
"Let us remember today all of the struggles for justice that so many people on this people have been, are and will be fighting for past, present and future," Stanton said in closing.
Near the end of the event, Kayhi freshman Inessa Kapralova performed a poem.
Kapralova read: "to eliminate her shame, eliminate your shame, the pain that was wrought about our people in vain. Before MLK spoke about his dream, Elizabeth Peratrovich spoke of suffering. The dream that our people felt because of segregation, the fact that it was legal to support discrimination. But this changed when she had a clear … direction: Give your people possession to continue their traditions, provided opportunity for better positions ..."
Kapralova's family led the audience in a rendition of Happy Birthday incorporating the region's three Indigenous language groups, Lingít, Xaad Kíl and Sm'álgyax, to celebrate Kapralova's birthday, which is also Feb. 16.