New $1 coin could feature Alaska Native activist who fought discrimination

The U.S. Mint has revealed designs for a new $1 coin that will honor Alaska’s 1945 anti-discrimination law, according to the Office of Alaska Gov. Bill Walker. Many of the contending designs feature Alaska Native civil rights activist Elizabeth Peratrovich, whose advocacy was instrumental in the passage of the bill.

The Native American $1 Coin Act, passed in 2007, mandates that the Secretary of the Treasury produce and circulate coins that commemorate the contributions of Native Americans to the United States. One of the proposed designs will appear on the “tails” side of the coin, while the “heads” sign will retain the image of Sacagawea, an explorer who helped guide Lewis and Clark on their 1805-1806 expedition to the Pacific Ocean. The final design will be released in 2020, the 75th anniversary of the law.

Born in 1911 in Petersburg, Alaska, Peratrovich belonged to the Tlingit tribe, according to the National Women’s History Museum. She left Alaska to attend college in Bellingham, Washington, and upon returning to raise a family with her husband, she saw Alaska Natives were unemployed, impoverished and subjected to overt discrimination.

Peratrovich mobilized friends and family to lobby the governor for anti-discrimination legislation, for improving health and sanitation in Alaska Native communities and advocated for educational opportunities for their children.

In a 1941 letter to Alaska’s Gov. Ernest Gruening, Peratrovich and her husband called for equal treatment and rights for white Alaskans and “the real Natives of Alaska,” who were subjected to segregation and exclusion, including through “No Natives Allowed” signs posted on businesses.

The anti-discrimination bill would penalize the display of such racially exclusionary signs. Additionally, the bill would grant all citizens of Alaska “full and equal enjoyment of accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges” in public places.

After the anti-discrimination bill passed the House of the Alaska Territorial Legislature in 1945, it faced heated opposition from territorial senators who referred to indigenous people as “barely out of savagery,” supported racial segregation and condemned interracial interaction.

When the Senate floor opened for anyone present to speak, Peratrovich delivered a now-famous speech.

“I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights,” Peratrovich said.

She continued, “Have you eliminated larceny or murder by passing a law against it? No law will eliminate crimes but, at least you as legislators, can assert to the world that you recognize the evil of the present situation and speak your intent to help us overcome discrimination.”

Peratrovich was the final speaker that day, the only person to testify besides her husband, and the bill passed 11-5 on Feb. 8, 1945, according to the Alaska Native Curriculum and Teacher Development Project.

Peratrovich was also an active member of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, a nonprofit founded to help work against racism, eventually serving as the organization’s president.

Peratrovich died on Dec. 1, 1958. The Alaska Legislature designated Feb. 16, the day Gov. Gruenig signed the bill into law, as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day in 1988.

In 2015, Walker nominated Peratrovich to be featured as the face of the $10 bill, although the Treasury ultimately chose to keep Alexander Hamilton, according to the Associated Press.

In a statement, Walker said Peratrovich and her husband “stood up to fight the unfair, inhumane, and degrading treatment of Alaska Natives, and their efforts towards positive change reverberate to this day.”

He continued, “Their words and actions continue to be an inspiration and reminder of the power that all people have to impact their government; this honor is truly deserved.”