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Elizabeth Peratrovich's Parents
On July 4, 1911, in the Southeast Alaska fishing community of Gánti Yaakw Séedi (Petersburg), Edith Tagcook Paul from Deishú (Haines) gave birth to the baby girl who would grow up to be Elizabeth Jean Peratrovich. Edith was a Tlingit woman of the Lukaax.ádi clan of the Raven moiety. Elizabeth's father was William Paddock, an Irishman who ran a logging camp and local store in Tinaghu (Tenakee), a small community north of Petersburg.
But William and Edith weren't married. William was married to Edith's sister, Anna. Like many Alaska Native people at the time, Anna had contracted tuberculosis. White outsiders brought the disease to Alaska, and it was especially deadly for Alaska Native people because they had not been exposed to it before. After the custom of that time, Edith went to live at her sister's home to help care for William and Anna's children during the lengthy period that Anna was away being treated.
No one knows much about the relationship between Edith and her sister's husband, but we do know Edith became pregnant. Aware that she couldn't care for her baby alone, Edith turned to the Salvation Army to find a home for her new child. It was there, we can imagine, that Andrew Wanamaker lifted the baby girl and cradled her in his arms.
His wife, Jean, gently kissed the downy black hair that covered the back of their newly adopted baby's head. "She looks like a little doll, don't you think, Andrew?"
"She's too strong to be a doll," Andrew replied.
Then Andrew and Jean took their daughter to their home in the town of Sheet'ká (Sitka), not far away, and that was how life began for Elizabeth.
Tlingit Elder Richard Stitt once said public speaking is "like waving a broom in a crowded room." It was easy for one's words to affect people in unintended, potentially negative, ways.
— Roy Peratrovich Jr.CHAPTER 2
Growing Up the Alaska Native Way
The word native means a person, plant, or animal belongs to a certain place. Three main groups of Native people live in Southeast Alaska: the Haida, the Tsimshian, and the Tlingit. Over thousands of years they developed cultures and a way of life especially suited to their Haa Aanî, or homeland. Andrew, Jean, and their new daughter, Elizabeth, lived what Alaskans call a subsistence lifestyle and followed many of the traditional Tlingit ways. It was a life that did not depend on grocery stores.
In the summer, Elizabeth followed her parents up the mountains to pick blueberries, salmonberries, and highbush cranberries. When they weren't berry picking, the family dug clams and fished for salmon, halibut, herring, and the oil-rich eulachon or candlefish. Elizabeth learned how to dry and can fish and to preserve berries to eat during the winter, and her father brought home deer, grouse, and ptarmigan from his hunting trips.
Elizabeth's parents spoke both English and Tlingit with their friends, but at home they spoke mainly Tlingit. Elizabeth quickly became fluent in both. Andrew's Tlingit name was Chalyee Éesh. Jean's was Shaaxaatk'í, and Elizabeth was given the name Kaaxgal.aat.
Understanding the meanings of Tlingit names can be difficult. Lance Twitchell, assistant professor of Alaska Native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast, says Andrew's Tlingit name, Chalyee Éesh, means "the father of Chalyee," which may mean "beneath the halibut." Jean's name, , means "root of all women." Elizabeth's Tlingit name was [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], which may mean "person who packs for themselves."
Sometimes Elizabeth would join in at a Ku.éex', a big celebration to honor the memory of someone who had died or sometimes to raise a new totem pole or dedicate a house. She would dance the ancient Tlingit dances through the night in her regalia — traditional clothing that featured a red and black wool robe with tiny, mother-of-pearl buttons sewn in the shape of a sockeye salmon, the crest of her clan. She might stop to enjoy a little smoked fish, gumboots, or her favorite, g'aax'w (herring eggs), all traditional Alaska Native foods. Then she would listen to the speeches. At every Ku.éex', there were lots and lots of speeches, and Elizabeth liked to sit quietly, taking it all in.
The Tlingit people consider public speaking an important skill and one that requires careful thought. For thousands of years the Tlingits and other Southeast Alaska Native people did not use written languages. Instead, they told stories, made up dances and songs, and created intricate weavings, totem poles, and carvings to remember special people and events. In this way, Tlingit history and important life lessons were passed from grandparents to parents to children.
Elizabeth's adoptive mother, Jean Wanamaker, was a renowned weaver whose work was later displayed at the Alaska Territorial Library and Museum. She taught Elizabeth how to dig, dry, and weave spruce roots into baskets so tight they could hold water. Elizabeth loved her Tlingit life. Andrew and Jean adored her, and Elizabeth grew up believing they were her birth parents.CHAPTER 3
When she was old enough to go to school, Elizabeth was surprised to find there were no Alaska Native teachers and speaking Tlingit was not allowed. Sometimes white teachers even made students kneel on rocks and struck them across their hands with a ruler for speaking their Native language. Another punishment was to make a student write on the chalk board one hundred times that he or she would speak only English.
As Elizabeth grew older, she was troubled to see that Alaska Native people and other minorities were separated in many ways from white people. Schools, hospitals, movie theaters, and even cemeteries had different places for people who were Alaska Native and people who weren't, and the nicest places were only for the white people. The reason for these inequities was racism, and young Elizabeth wasn't the only person bothered by it.
In 1912, just a year after Elizabeth was born, a group of Native people from around Southeast Alaska met in Sitka to form the Alaska Native Brotherhood, or ANB, and two years later, the Alaska Native Sisterhood, or ANS. Andrew Wanamaker was a charter member of the ANB and an honorary founder of what is now known as the oldest Indigenous civil rights organization in the world. Both the ANB and ANS worked to advance Native rights throughout Southeast Alaska and to support improvements in educational opportunities, employment, social services, health services, and housing for all Alaska Native people. Later the ANB and ANS would prove essential to Elizabeth and her husband, Roy Peratrovich Sr., in the battle for civil rights.
When he was growing up, Andrew Wanamaker attended a boarding school that was only for Alaska Native children, the Sheldon Jackson School in Sitka. The school's founder, Reverend Sheldon Jackson, believed firmly in forcing Alaska Native students to abandon their traditional customs and practices, adopt Christianity, and speak only English. Reverend Jackson had been the chief education administrator in Alaska, and his mission to "civilize and assimilate" Alaska Native people persisted.
Andrew had no choice but to go along with this misguided approach to education, but in the process he learned some useful skills. Along with studying carpentry, American history, and English, Andrew learned about Reverend Jackson's Presbyterian faith. Later, he captained a ship he helped build for the Sheldon Jackson School, and the Presbyterian Church made him a lay minister. He and several others powered their boats — known locally as the "Presbyterian Navy" — up and down Southeast Alaska to preach to the local people.
When Elizabeth was old enough, Andrew brought her along on these trips. Since he spoke Tlingit and English, Andrew was able to deliver sermons in both languages. Many of the Elders didn't speak English at all in those days, so Andrew's language skills made him very popular.
In each village Elizabeth sat quietly in the back of the church, legs dangling from the pew while she listened to her dad's sermons. She was intent on learning everything she could and soon found that when she spoke seriously and chose her words carefully, people paid attention. Elizabeth could not have known that someday she would be an important speaker herself and would return to those same villages to minister about civil rights.
When Elizabeth was ten, her family moved to Lawáak (Klawock), a Native village on Prince of Wales Island in the southern part of Southeast Alaska. It was in Klawock that she met Roy Peratrovich, Lk'uteen. Roy's father was a fisherman and fishnet maker from Yugoslavia, and his mother was a Tlingit woman from the Klawock area.
Soon after, both Roy and Elizabeth were faced with a difficult situation. In those days educational opportunities in small villages like Klawock were limited, if they existed at all. Alaska Native students who wanted to continue their educations were forced to leave home to attend boarding schools. Sometimes children as young as five years old were taken from their parents and sent to those faraway schools. The disruption caused a deep sense of loss for families and communities.
Elizabeth went to the Sheldon Jackson School, the same school her adoptive father had attended. Only about a year later, however, she and her family moved to Kichxáan (Ketchikan), about 180 miles to the south. Meanwhile, Roy, who was two years older than Elizabeth, went to a boarding school called the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon, to continue his education.
Like the Sheldon Jackson School, Chemawa was authorized by the federal government to assimilate and integrate Native Americans into white society. Roy liked the more challenging academics at Chemawa and became captain of the football, basketball, and baseball teams. When he returned to finish high school in Ketchikan several years later, he was a seasoned athlete with a new sophistication that certainly was not lost on Elizabeth.CHAPTER 4
Citizenship, a Terrible Sign, and Kayhi
Shortly before the Wanamakers arrived in Ketchikan, the United States Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. The new law granted citizenship to all American Indian and Alaska Native people born in the United States or in U.S. territories like Alaska. Did this mean Elizabeth and other Alaska Native people would finally gain the same rights as white Alaskans?
Unfortunately, an ugly surprise awaited Elizabeth and her parents. A homemade sign hanging on the door of a popular general store blared "No Natives Allowed," and that was just one of many businesses that refused to serve them. Although the federal government now recognized Alaska Native people as citizens, the recognition did not make discrimination go away.
When Elizabeth entered Ketchikan High School, she was relieved to find both Native and non-Native students. This was largely thanks to Tlingit leader William Paul Sr., an attorney who brought a successful lawsuit against the Bureau of Education school in Ketchikan alleging that Native children were being forced to attend an inferior school. After the lawsuit, all students attended the same school, and everyone called it "Kayhi."
Elizabeth approached school like everything else in her life, with great commitment and enthusiasm. She wasted no time getting involved and even joined the glee club, where she sang in the operetta. Elizabeth was well on her way to becoming a woman who believed in being true to herself and fighting for it too. She sent this poem to a close friend shortly after she finished high school.
May 18, 1931
Here's to the hope that you like my motto poem:
Do your stuff an' let 'em beller. Do your stuff, and let 'em rap. If you win, they'll holler "lucky." If you lose, they'll holler, "Sap." Let 'em help or let 'em hinder. You shouldn't worry; do your stuff. You're the girl you have to live with. Be yourself and treat 'em ruff.
Lovingly yours, Beth
Roy and Elizabeth finished high school together, and their relationship blossomed. After graduation, they both headed south to Bellingham, Washington, to attend Bellingham Normal School, now called Western Washington University. They wanted to become teachers.CHAPTER 5
Marriage and Klawock
Elizabeth and Roy were enrolled at Bellingham Normal School for only one quarter. They arrived in Bellingham in 1931, after America's worst-ever stock market crash caused a national panic that became known as the Great Depression. By the time they registered for classes, lines of people waiting for food handouts were a common sight across the United States. On top of that, a widespread drought forced farmers in many states to abandon their land, and eleven thousand banks did not have enough deposits to stay open. It was not possible for the young couple to borrow money for college during this difficult time.
Elizabeth and Roy knew their educations would have to wait, but their love would not. On December 15, 1931, they married in Bellingham and, soon after, headed back to Klawock.
During the next few years, Elizabeth gave birth to three children. Roy Jr. was first, then Frank Allen, and finally Loretta Marie, whom they called Lori. Meanwhile, Roy Sr. joined the ANB. While in Klawock, he served as a city policeman, chief clerk, and postmaster and was elected mayor for four consecutive terms. Elizabeth spent most of her time caring for their children, but she also supported her husband in his efforts to help Alaska Native people. She became a well respected member of the ANS, having served for a time as grand vice president before being elected grand president in the early 1940s. Meanwhile, Roy had been elected grand president of the ANB, a position he would hold by unanimous consent four more times before he retired.
But Elizabeth knew they could do even more in the territorial capital, Juneau. So in 1941, at the age of thirty, she convinced her husband to move their young family to the biggest city in Southeast Alaska.
The Second Organic Act of 1912 created the Territory of Alaska, allowing for distinct judicial districts and the election of representatives and senators to a territorial state legislature. Alaska was not granted statehood until 1959.CHAPTER 6
The Capital City
Juneau had 6,000 people in those days and was evolving from a mining town to a more cosmopolitan capital city. Moving there from the village of Klawock, with a population of about 450, was a big change for the Peratrovich family. In Klawock, nearly everyone was Alaska Native. Many residents were related, and everyone knew one another, so incidents of racism were rare. But in Juneau, and most other communities in Alaska with a sizeable white population, racial discrimination was common.
When they arrived, Elizabeth saw more hateful signs like the ones in Ketchikan. One screamed at her, "WHITE TRADE ONLY!" It was especially offensive because the Tlingit had been accomplished traders for thousands of years, navigating great river basins and mountain ranges from Southeast Alaska to the Interior.
Why would the young couple want to bring their family to live in such an unfriendly place? It helped that Elizabeth's adoptive parents, Andrew and Jean Wanamaker, had already moved there, but there was a bigger reason. As Alaska's capital, Juneau was the place where the future of Alaska Native people would be decided. Elizabeth's fierce love for her children and her desire to protect them gave her courage. She would work hand in hand with her husband and other Alaska Native leaders. Together they would do everything they could to end racism in their Alaska homeland.
But first they had to find a place to live. While walking up the hill behind what was then the Federal Building (now the Alaska State Capitol), they noticed several homes with "For Rent" signs. The homes were only a block from the Fifth Street School, and they appeared to be well maintained. It was a perfect neighborhood to raise their children. Roy Sr. called the phone number written on one sign and was told to come by the next day to complete the necessary paperwork so they could move in.
But when the couple got there, the owner said, "You're an Indian, aren't you?"
Roy answered, "Yes, I am."
"Your wife too?"
"Well, I'd like to help you, but other people who live around here don't want me to rent to Indians."
Elizabeth and Roy shook their heads in disbelief and left, more determined than ever to find a way to prevent this landlord and others from telling Alaska Native people where they could and couldn't live and raise their children. After much searching, they were able to rent a small house on Seward Street, also near the Fifth Street School and directly across the street from the Federal Building where Roy worked for the Territorial Treasury.
Not long after they were settled, Elizabeth's adoptive mother became very ill with a kidney disorder. Roy Jr. remembers his mother's sadness when, soon after Thanksgiving on November 28, 1941, Jean died at the age of fifty-seven.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fighter in Velvet Gloves"
Copyright © 2019 Annie Boochever.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESS.
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