Raven Woman Takes Flight
Raven Woman kept quiet
and raised her Tlingit family
and danced the Tennessee Waltz
with Roy, her Eagle husband—
She stayed out of
all those places
she was supposed to stay out of
and didn’t complain
about the injustice
she looked inside her Children’s eyes
and saw their futures
were not free—
their feet would not carry them
to all the places they should go—
and knew in her Raven wisdom
she must conjure up
like long ago (in legend)
when ancient Raven used the trickery
of his wise and witty tongue
to distract the ancient chief—
long enough for Raven
to quickly steal the sun
from the chief’s secret box
and bring light to all the people
The Alaskan Territorial Legislature
debated the bill
as though it were just another everyday thing
as Raven Woman (who was called Elizabeth)
listened from above, in the gallery
knitting, and taking notes,
a sparkling tear rolling down her high cheek bone
as she watched Loretta, her young Raven daughter
play about amongst the chairs happily—
just the right moment
like back in the Tlingit’s ancient world
Raven Woman Elizabeth rose silently
and gathered up her notes—
she came down from the gallery
to stand before the gathered modern “chiefs”
for she wanted something—
something that they had
(locked in their secret box)
and she knew she had to use her tongue wisely
with a measured amount of wit and heart
to unlock that box
and let the light out
for her people.
She stood then —but without swaying timidly
in the dress she had made with her own busy hands
and all stopped and looked up to listen
she surely had something important to say
and her voice was deliberate
as she addressed the sitting chiefs —and the one who had just asked:
“Who are these people, barely out of savagery,
who want to associate with us whites with 5,000
years of recorded civilization behind us?”
She answered him:
“I would not have expected, 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. When my husband and I came to Juneau and sought a home in a nice neighborhood where our children could play happily with our neighbors’ children, we found such a house and had arranged to lease it. When the owners learned that we were Indians, they said ‘no.’ —Would we be compelled to live in the slums?”
A Senator-Chief responded by asking Raven Woman Elizabeth whether a law would end discrimination.
“Have you eliminated larceny or murder by passing a law against it? 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.”
~~~~~And Raven again took light from the box~~~~~
~~~~where it had been kept locked away~~~~
~~~and gave it freely to all the people~~~
The Facts (Culled From Various Editorials and Publications)
Elizabeth Peratrovich (Raven woman) said those words in 1945
The Legislature passed the Anti Discrimination Act, 11-5.
Alaska passed its own civil rights legislation two decades earlier than the country as a whole passed similar legislation — the first state to pass such a law since Civil War times.
Two years prior to her death, Elizabeth attended a month-long program at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., on adult Indian education, according to Loretta Montgomery, her daughter. Frank Peratrovich said his mother heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the university on how to desegregate churches. “She was quite impressed with Martin Luther King,” he said.
Elizabeth Peratrovich died in 1958 of cancer. In 1988, the Alaska Legislature designated Feb. 16, the day the act was signed into law, as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day.
Nine days before the first Elizabeth Peratrovich Day celebration in 1989, Roy Sr. died.
Their eldest son, Artist Roy Peratrovich Jr. sculpted a bronze bust of his mother, which is displayed on the ground floor lobby of the Alaska State Capitol. Roy Jr. is also nearing completion of a soaring statue for Peratrovich Park in Anchorage, which honors his parent’s name. Because his mother is from the Raven clan, the monument is titled “Flight of the Raven.” He said it will show a simile of his parents bringing light to the world just as the raven did in the Tlingit creation story. To see the model go to the Anchorage Park Foundation’s Web site at www.anchorageparkfoundation.org/projects/flightoftheraven.htm.
Roy Jr. said it took people years to realize what his mother had done and he credits a family scrapbook his father kept as the trigger that helped recognize Elizabeth for her work. In it are the accomplishments of Roy And Elizabeth Peratrovich and correspondences with government leaders. Copies are housed at the Alaska Heritage Museum and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Roy Sr. was elected Grand President of the Alaska Native Brotherhood in 1940 and served in that capacity for five years. Elizabeth was Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood in 1945, the year the bill was passed.
In the scrapbook preface, Roy Jr. writes: “It is important to note that the speech my mother gave to the Territorial Senate in 1945 was never officially recorded ... I am told mother never had any speaking notes; however, she and dad had prepared themselves the night before this particular session of the Territorial Senate by trying to anticipate questions that night asked by opponents to the Anti-Discrimination Bill.”
Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovich were all about love, not hate; caring, not holding anyone down; dancing, not sulking. The couple, both Ketchikan High School graduates, felt the sting of discrimination when they moved to Juneau. They didn’t want their three children to grow up in a society that said that was right. Instead of teaching their children to hate back, the Peratroviches showed them how change is accomplished: Through constant work and passion; through hope and perseverance.
They didn’t change society as quickly as they would have liked, but they kept at it until they succeeded, because what they wanted was right.
It’s simple, the Anti-Discrimination Act. It reads;
“All citizens within the jurisdiction of the Territory of Alaska shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of public inns, restaurants, eating houses, hotels, soda fountains, soft drink parlors, taverns, roadhouses, barber shops, beauty parlors, bathrooms, resthouses, theaters, skating rinks, cafes, ice cream parlors, transportation companies, and all other conveyances and amusements, subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law and applicable alike to all citizens.”
All of us are equal. And yet, before the bill was passed, it didn’t seem so obvious to some Alaska state senators, who argued that the act’s passage would be divisive.
Senator Allen Shattuck was one of those. He asked the now-famous question: “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?"”
Elizabeth Peratrovich carried the day in her response, comments to the Alaska Senate that to this day can raise the hairs on the back of the neck. Her son, Roy Jr., even six decades later, describes the “body-tingly feeling” his mother’s speech engendered.
“I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights,” she said. “When my husband and I came to Juneau and sought a home in a nice neighborhood where our children could play happily with our neighbors' children, we found such a house and had arranged to lease it. When the owners learned that we were Indians, they said no. Would we be compelled to live in the slums?”
Asked whether the law would eliminate discrimination, Elizabeth answered with a question of her own: “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."
Roy Peratrovich Sr. had his say that day, as well. The ANB Grand President told the senators, “Either you are for discrimination or you are against it accordingly as you vote on this bill.” More were against discrimination, and the bill passed, 11-5.
Roy and Elizabeth didn’t waste time feeling bad about past slights, according to “A recollection of civil rights leader Elizabeth Peratrovich,” the Tlingit and Haida Central Council’s 1991 publication. Here’s how they marked the act’s passage.
“That evening, Mr. and Mrs. Roy Peratrovich could be seen at the Baranof Hotel, dancing all night long — dancing amongst people they did not personally know, dancing in an accommodation where the day before they were not welcome. They celebrated. They were happy. They belonged.”
We all belong. We are all Alaskans.
Elizabeth Peratrovich, Raven Woman
The poem Raven Woman Takes Flight is dedicated to my friend Artist-Sculptor Roy Peratrovich Jr. in memory of his mother Elizabeth Peratrovich and his father Roy Peratrovich Sr. in recognition of their tireless efforts for equality.
~~~8pm August 29, 2007~~~ Reta Lorraine Bowen Taylor