74 years ago on February 5, 1945, the Alaska Territorial legislative gallery in Juneau, Alaska, was so crowded the doors were flung open, and people, Native and non-Native alike, lined the hallway outside. Some stood on chairs to see better. Elizabeth Peratrovich sat in the back, knitting needles clicking while her youngest, little Lorie, fed her the yarn.
Thanks to the hard work of Elizabeth and others, there were three new Alaska Native legislators in the House of Representatives, so the anti-discrimination bill passed the House easily. The Senate vote was less certain. Intense arguing and bickering erupted.
One Senator from Juneau said, “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind us?”
Elizabeth’s knitting needles froze. She drew a slow, deliberate breath before beginning to knit again.
Soon, it was her turn.
Elizabeth Peratrovich stood and was acknowledged by the senator. Thirty-three years old and classically styled in white velvet gloves, matching hat, and an olive-green dress, Elizabeth walked slowly down the aisle with her head held high. As she turned to face the assembled legislators, the audience strained forward, pulled by her calm but powerful presence.
If anyone in the room thought the young woman before them would mince her words, they quickly realized their mistake.
“I would not have expected,” she began, “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 of Rights.”
By the end of her testimony, a long silence seemed to swallow the air in the room. Then a wave of clapping swept through the crowd; even some who had opposed the bill joined in. Cheers rang throughout the gallery and the Senate floor. She was the last speaker of the day.
Adapted from Fighter in Velvet Gloves: Alaska Civil Rights Hero Elizabeth Peratrovich by Annie Boochever with Roy Peratrovich Jr., published by University of Alaska Press and just released.
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