Alaska Native civil rights history shaped state

The classic American civil rights story begins with oppression, strides toward equality and triumphs in freedom.

It may be overly simplistic – many point out that the struggle is not over – but the American civil rights story is inherent to U.S. culture and identity.

But many Alaskans know little of their own state’s civil rights history, even the Alaska Native civil rights histories that so dramatically shaped the cultural and political landscape of the state Alaskans confront today.

How Alaska Natives won the right to vote, fought segregation policies and created a mass civil rights movement across the largest state in the Union is a story the whole of which could not be contained in the mere folds of a newspaper.

But even the tale briefly told gives a glimpse into where Alaska has come from, and where it might be going.

“Civilized persons”

After its 1867 purchase from Russia, Natives were not recognized as citizens of the Alaska territory. In the view of the U.S. government, Alaska Natives could not be citizens, because they were not civilized.

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Only citizens of the new American territory could own land, operate a business and vote.

The Alaska Native Brotherhood formed in 1912 to gain legal rights – like the right to citizenship, land ownership and equal education – for Alaska Natives. Two years later its counterpart, the Alaska Native Sisterhood, was founded. The groups originated in Southeast Alaska primarily among Tlingit and Haida Natives, but the organization included Alaska Natives from all regions and even had white members.

An early victory was achieved when a law passed allowing Alaska Natives to vote – under certain conditions.

“Wear Western clothing; not eat Indian foods or speak Indian languages; live apart from Indian village communities …” The list goes on. Helen McNeil, a Tlingit in the Alaska Native Sisterhood, talked about what Natives had to do to be recognized as civilized by the territorial government.

The Alaska territorial legislature passed a law in 1915 that allowed a Native to become a citizen if five white people testified that the Native person had met legal criteria that indicated he or she had given up Native culture in favor of Western ways.

“To be able to affect things that influenced our lives,” McNeil said, “it was recognized very early on that we really needed to vote.”

The Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood used the power of the vote to exert influence over the policies that affected Natives’ lives. The organization sent advocates to testify before the territorial legislature on anti-discrimination legislation, equal education and recognition of Natives’ land ownership, and elected the first Native representative, William Paul, to the territorial legislature in 1924.

Many Natives who applied for citizenship still practiced in private the culture they could not express in public.

“What was done in public,” McNeil said, “and what was done in the home, was not necessarily the same. Many (Tlingits) would speak only English in public, but still speak Tlingit in the home.”

In 1924, the federal government passed a law permitting all American Indians and Alaska Natives to become full citizens.

The Alaska territorial legislature responded by passing a law that required a literacy test to vote. The law – and the legislative and public debate about it – focused on preventing “illiterate Indians” from voting.

The literacy requirement to vote remained in effect until the adoption of the Alaska constitution in 1956.

The legacy of the “civilized persons” litmus remained, however. In some communities, Natives who went to Bureau of Indian Affairs schools locally, and were caught speaking their indigenous tongue, were sometimes forcibly sent by the BIA to boarding schools to be more thoroughly “civilized.”

“No Natives Allowed”

As Alaska territory towns flourished, they quickly became riddled with segregation signs.

The sign for the Meals At All Hours Restaurant in Juneau proclaims, in one 1908 photograph, “All White Help.” Signs that read, “No Natives Allowed,” and others that indicated separate seating areas and entrances for whites and Natives, were posted in towns all across Alaska.

Starting in 1929, the ANS and ANB boycotted businesses that posted segregation signs. The boycott succeeded in getting many of the signs taken down throughout Southeast Alaska. However, signs still remained in parts of the region, and other areas of Alaska were outside of the boycott.

Elizabeth Peratrovich, grand vice president of the ANS, and her husband, grand president of the ANB Roy Peratrovich, sent a letter to Gov. Earnest Gruening in 1941 regarding the “No Natives Allowed” sign that hung in the Douglas Inn near Juneau.

Gruening had already personally met and corresponded with business owners and military leaders about their segregation signs. He persuaded some to take them down; others were not persuaded. Gruening submitted an act to the territorial legislature that would outlaw the signs; it came to a close vote but did not pass.

But in the fall of 1944, two Tlingit men, Frank Peratrovich and Andrew Hope, won seats in the territorial legislature.

That same year, a young Native woman in Nome made history when she refused to budge from the white side of a public movie theater.

The manager of the theater responded by calling the Nome police.

The police forced Schenck from her seat, pushed her out the door, arrested her and put her up for the night in the Nome city jail.

Major Marvin “Muktuk” Marston, head of the Alaska Territorial Guard, encouraged Schenck to inform Gov. Gruening of the incident via telegram.

The territorial legislature met every two years; at the beginning of the fall 1945 session, the law banning segregation signs was at the top of the agenda. Schenck’s story was a vivid anecdote among many testimonies about the treatment of Natives under widely accepted segregation practices in public spaces.

Sen. Tolbert Scott argued that segregation served Natives and whites well – that only “mixed breeds” caused difficulties with segregation. Another argument against the bill was that it would not be effective in ending discrimination anyway.

After two hours of debate, Elizabeth Peratrovich gave her testimony. She spoke from the heart of the pain caused her by being turned away from public spaces because she was Native, or being ushered into “Natives only” areas.

Against the argument that the law would not eliminate discrimination, Peratrovich said, “Do your laws against larceny and even murder eliminate those crimes?”

The act passed with a majority of votes. On Feb. 16, 1945, Gov. Gruening signed the anti-discrimination law.

Diane Benson, author of a 2003 play about Elizabeth Peratrovich, “When My Spirit Raised Its Hands,” said, “You could no longer have signs out that said ‘No Natives No Dogs Allowed.’ That particular sign was most offensive. It’s very well remembered by a lot of people, Native and non-Native. There were merchants who placed that sign in their windows.”

Benson said that, while the bill didn’t end discrimination, it had an important impact on Alaska.

“It addressed blatant discrimination,” Benson said. “It didn’t curb discrimination; it wasn’t expected to. But it was setting a value.”

Next week in “Heritage of Courage:” Aleut Evacuation.