Southeast Alaska Discovery Center dedicates theater, new Peratrovich exhibit

Elizabeth Peratrovich Theater Dedication Group Photo


KETCHIKAN, Alaska – In the waning days of the Second World War, a Tlingit woman stood up in front of the Alaska Territorial Senate to demand equality for all Alaskans – and her voice reverberated far beyond the Last Frontier.

The little-known story of Elizabeth Peratrovich and her fight against racism in Alaska will now be shared with many of the million-plus visitors who arrive in Ketchikan each summer. The Tongass National Forest’s Southeast Alaska Discovery Center dedicated the Elizabeth Peratrovich Theater and unveiled a new permanent exhibit on Alaska Natives’ fight for civil rights during a joint ceremony with the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) and Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS), Feb. 16, 2017.

Tlingit writer, University of Alaska Anchorage professor and actress Diane Benson keynoted the ceremony by declaring it fitting that Elizabeth’s life and work be honored in a museum dedicated to telling the story of Southeast Alaska’s land and people.

“The pain of racism has left marks on my heart and on my face. Just walking through this building tonight is healing,” said Benson, who portrayed Peratrovich in a 2009 PBS documentary. “I hear the voices of our people, I hear our language spoken when just in my lifetime it was not allowed. Elizabeth spoke up for our rights at a time when we couldn’t walk down the street without facing insult and abuse.”

Elizabeth Peratrovich grew up in Southeast Alaska and graduated from Ketchikan High School, where she met her future husband, Roy. Their passionate advocacy and tireless organizing with the ANS and ANB is credited with securing enactment of the Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act on Feb. 16, 1945. By barring racial discrimination in public facilities and accommodations, the fledgling Territory of Alaska took action to prohibit segregation nearly two decades before the federal Civil Rights Act was passed. Each year, Alaskans honor her memory and her work on the anniversary of the law’s enactment, now celebrated as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day.

Those celebrations are what led Leslie Swada, the center’s director, to think big. For more than a decade, the ANB and ANS have partnered with the Forest Service to honor Elizabeth Peratrovich Day through art, lectures, speeches, dances and traditional ceremonies in the center’s 210-seat theater. What if, Swada thought, the center didn’t just celebrate Elizabeth once a year, but all year round?

“I was inspired to find a way to tell Elizabeth’s story, because it’s a story that needs to be told – to Alaskans, to (the rest of the country) and to people around the world,” said Swada. “Hers is a message of courage, of defiance and of hope.”

Swada’s inspiration led to collaboration with the Peratrovich family, the ANB and ANS, Forest Service tribal relations specialists, the Sealaska Heritage Institute and other local organizations to produce a two-part display that is now part of the center’s permanent exhibition. It includes archival photographs, artifacts and information telling Elizabeth’s story – including her yearbook photo from Ketchikan High School. It was unveiled by betsy Peratrovich, Elizabeth’s granddaughter, and Jason Anderson, deputy forest supervisor of the Tongass National Forest.

After the unveiling, Benson performed a dramatization of Peratrovich’s famed speech to the Alaska Territorial Senate. The ceremony also included remarks from ANB Grand Camp President Sasha Soboleff, ANS Grand Camp President Cecelia Tavoliero,  Ketchikan Gateway Borough Mayor David Landis,  and concluded with performances by several local, Alaska Native groups.

While praising the Forest Service and its partners for honoring her grandmother, betsy called upon the community to continue making strides toward inclusivity and respect for all – carrying on Elizabeth’s struggle for equality.

“It’s up to us, each and every day, to make sure her legacy continues,” said betsy. “We must continue to call out bigotry in all its forms.”

Elizabeth Peratrovich Theater Dedication - Elizabeth Display      Elizabeth Peratrovich Theater Dedication - ANS & ANB Display














The life of Elizabeth Peratrovich and the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood displays at the Southeast Alaska Discovry Center in Ketchikan, Alaska.