Monday was Independence Day, but it was also the 111th birthday of Elizabeth Peratrovich, a pioneer of the civil rights movement in Alaska and in the United States. In Sitka, residents chose the day to dedicate a monument Peratrovich, in a place where – until recently – another monument once stood.
KCAW’s Robert Woolsey attended, and sent this audio postcard.
Singing: Happy Birthday dear Elizabeth… (first in English, then in Lingít).
The Peratrovich monument is a park bench, but on a scale meant to secure the memory of the honoree for years to come: Two slabs of yellow cedar hewn from a blown-down 124-year old tree, set into concrete, and weighing around 2,000 pounds.
Peratrovich was born in Petersburg, but her work is an enduring legacy of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, which were founded in Sitka, and the organizations’ efforts to push the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 through the territorial legislature.
David Kanosh led the spiritual dedication of the bench.
“I stand here a guest upon the land of the Kiks.ádi… land of Kaagwaantaan. I ask your permission to speak upon this land. Gunalchéesh!” Kanosh said.
Kanosh told the story of Raven and the Box of Daylight, to illustrate Peratrovich’s impact on the lives of Alaskans, both Indigenous and non-Native.
“Raven came along and he found a man, a stingy man, who had these boxes which contained the stars, the moon, and the sun. Raven was able to acquire the boxes. He was able to release the stars and the moon, out into the world and up into the sky. But there was one more box, a box of daylight. Raven opened the box of daylight. The sun rose for the first time, and people no longer had to walk in darkness.” Kanosh added: “This is how I think of Elizabeth Peratrovich.”
Former ANS Grand President Paulette Moreno emceed the dedication. This ceremony was a moment for her to come full circle, from a time in October, 2016, when she donned Tlingit regalia and climbed Castle Hill during the annual reenactment of the Alaska Transfer, and held a small sign reading “Gunalchéesh! Sheet’ka Kwaan, for your care of Tlingit Aani for time immemorial.”
Moreno was later active in the effort to remove the bronze statue of Alexander Baranov which once stood in this spot in Sitka’s Centennial Plaza, and she alluded to it briefly – and humorously.
“And we are honored that so many of you have come to show your love, support, and respect. Gunalchéesh!” she said. “As we look over the view to where another monument once stood – and now Doug, can you raise your hand? You’re taking pictures from there right now (audience laughs). This is significant.”
The removal of the Baranov statue, and its subsequent relocation inside the Sitka History Museum was peaceful, and accomplished with the government’s support. Compared to the removal of similar reminders of historical trauma, it could have gone much worse. Deputy Mayor Kevin Knox also tied this ceremony to that moment.
“I really look forward to seeing more and more changes in our community, and throughout our nation in how we respect and honor and value everybody in our community,” he said. “On behalf of the City of Sitka and the Assembly, Gunalchéesh.”
After everyone present had dipped their hands into a bowl of water collected from the several river systems that sustain Sitka, and sprinkled it over the bench, Knox and lifetime Alaska Native Sisterhood member Liz Howard cut the ribbon, and the party moved inside – out of the sun – for birthday cake and coffee.