Peratrovich gives birthday present to civil rights leader and step towards healing Sitka’s cultural wounds

Former ANS Grand President Paulette Moreno greets spectators at the inauguration of the Elizabeth Peratrovich Bench, located directly opposite the site where a statue of Alexander Baranov once stood. (KCAW/Woolsey)

Monday was Independence Day, but it was also the 111th birthday of Elizabeth Peratrovich, a pioneer of the civil rights movement in Alaska and the United States. In Sitka, residents chose the day to dedicate a monument to Peratrovich, at a spot where – until recently – another monument once stood.

KCAW’s Robert Woolsey was in attendance and sent this audio postcard.

Song: Happy birthday dear Elizabeth… (first in English, then in Lingít).

Peratrovich’s monument is a park bench, but on a scale designed to ensure the honoree’s memory for years to come: two slabs of yellow cedar hewn from a felled 124-year-old tree, set in concrete and weighing approximately £2,000.

Peratrovich was born in Petersburg, but her work is an enduring legacy of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, which was founded in Sitka, and the organizations’ efforts to pass the 1945 Anti-Discrimination Act through the territorial legislature.

“I may be blind, but there are things you don’t need eyes to see. And that’s the love of the people here,” David Kanosh said during his blessing. “Indeed, I thank each and every one of you as you advance the rights of all, as you are my stars, my moon and my sun, as I release you into the world for a new generation to continue this legacy of Elizabeth Peratrovich (KCAW/Woolsey)

David Kanosh led the spiritual dedication from the bench.

“I stand here as a guest in the land of the Kiks.ádi…the land of Kaagwaantaan. I ask your permission to talk about this country. Gunalchesh! Kanosh said.

Kanosh told the story of Raven and the Box of Daylight, to illustrate Peratrovich’s impact on the lives of Alaskans, Native and non-Native alike.

“Raven came and he found a man, a miserly 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, into the world and in the sky. But there was one more box, a daylight box. Raven opened the daylight box. The sun rose for the first time and people no longer had to walking in darkness. Kanosh added, “That’s how I think of Elizabeth Peratrovich.”

The former great president of the ANS, Paulette Moreno, animated the dedication. This ceremony was a moment for her to come full circle, starting with a moment in October 2016, when she donned Tlingit regalia and climbed Castle Hill during the annual Alaska Transfer Reenactment, and held a small sign reading “Gunalchesh! Sheet’ka Kwaan, for your concern for the Tlingit Aani since time immemorial.

Moreno was then active in the effort to remove the bronze statue of Alexander Baranov that once stood there in Sitka’s Centennial Square, 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. Gunalchesh!” she said. Now Doug, can you raise your hand? You’re taking pictures from there right now (audience laughs). It is significant.

Deputy Mayor Kevin Knox and ANS life member Liz Howard cut the ribbon on Peratrovich’s bench. “I’m really looking forward to seeing more and more changes here in our community and across our country, in how we respect, honor and appreciate everyone in our communities,” Knox said. He is flanked by fellow Assembly members Thor Christianson, Rebecca Himschoot and Dave Miller. Kevin Mosher is just out of frame. (KCAW/Woolsey)

The removal of the Baranov statue, and its aftermath moving inside the Sitka History Museum was peaceful and accomplished with government support. Compared to the removal of similar reminders of historical trauma, it could have been much worse. Deputy Mayor Kevin Knox also linked this ceremony to this moment.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing more and more change in our community and across our country in how we respect, honor and appreciate everyone in our community,” he said. “On behalf of the City of Sitka and the Assembly, Gunalcheesh.”

The dedication included collecting water from major river systems around Sitka and sprinkling it onto the bench. The event organizers ensured that the memory of Elizabeth Peratrovich would be passed on to the next generation. (KCAW/Woolsey)

After everyone present plunged their hands into a bowl of water collected from the various river systems that support Sitka, and sprinkled her on the bench, Knox and Liz Howard, a life member of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, cut the ribbon, and the party moved indoors – out of the sun – for birthday cake and coffee.

The bench was created by wood artist Zach LaPerriere from a fallen yellow cedar he estimates to be 124 years old. Mary Goddard made the copper tinah (not pictured) and Lee House designed the plate. (KCAW/Woolsey)
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