You’re never too young to start learning about Alaska’s most important civil rights leader. Chuck Miller, the cultural and community liaison for the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, captivated a group of about 20 toddlers at the Sitka Public Library last Thursday (2-16-2023) with traditional Tlingit stories to celebrate Elizabeth Peratrovich.
Accompanying himself on a drum, Miller told the story of how Raven made humans out of trees, and another one about how Raven lost his beak.
“ Neech wei yaanagut wei yeil, yoo awe kaduneek,” Miller began, introducing the story in Tlingit. “Do we remember what that means, friends?”
A blond-haired toddler sitting cross-legged on the rug piped up in response. “Raven walking along the beach!”
“Good job — Raven walking along the beach,” Miller said. “As he’s walking along the beach, he’s hungry. He’s always hungry, that Raven. His stomach will growl. Can you make a growling sound like your stomach?” Enthusiastic growls filled the room.
Miller has been telling stories for most of his life. For Miller, being able to tell these stories and wear his regalia is itself a celebration of Peratrovich’s advocacy, which was instrumental in passing the Alaska Equal Rights Act of 1945.
“I was thinking earlier about it today, and what I’m appreciative for is being able to do the storytelling, do the songs, do the dance, and be able to share history with people of all ages and of all races,” Miller said. “I wouldn’t be able to do that. I wouldn’t be able to do any of that without what she sacrificed for all of us. I never even met her. But I’m grateful today that she did what she did, I wouldn’t be able to wear my regalia in front of anybody.”
The details of Peratrovich’s legacy may have been lost on this audience, but they were happy to paddle along with Raven as he dove down to steal bait off of a halibut hook. Miller narrated the experience:
“That’s his favorite. He just wants that animal fat. How is he going to get it? So he watched the fishermen every day. They go out fishing, they go out on their canoes and they paddle. Can you paddle, friends? Show me your paddling!”
Miller told stories for about 25 minutes – a long time for a room of wriggling children.
“Everybody was very happy, so I wanted to share more stories than just one,” Miller said. “So I shared two. I think they were right at the edge of their seats, but they were also like, at the edge of their patience, too, because they sat really well.”
Amid the vigorous paddling and call-and-response, there was only one close call, where Miller’s students took their instructions a little too literally.
“And they spit on the hook for good luck. Can you do that? Pretend to do that. Don’t do that.”
Miller ended with a short song and a thank-you to everyone for sitting so well. After the reading, participants were offered free coloring books with Tlingit stories. Sitka continued the Elizabeth Peratrovich Day celebration with a parade later on Thursday.