Published on February 11th, 2010
A civil rights pioneer continues through the art of her son
By VAN WILLIAMS
Roy Peratrovich Jr. was just 10 years old when his mother, Elizabeth Peratrovich, famously spoke to the Alaska Territorial Legislature in 1945. It was her testimony that is credited for spearheading the passage of the state's Anti-Discrimination Act, the first of its kind in the United States.
Being that young, Roy didn't fully understand the ramifications of what his mother said or what his father, Roy Peratrovich, did in the name of civil rights. They were pioneers of the Native movement; a pair of Tlingit leaders that would reshape the lives of all indigenous people.
But to him they were just mom and dad.
"When it happened I didn't know, so I didn't really appreciate what they were doing," he said recently. "I just lived to play basketball."
Now 75, Roy has had lots of time to reflect on all the remarkable things his parents did during their lives.
His father worked as a fisherman, boat captain and trapper in his hometown of Klawock before becoming its mayor. He was elected grand president of the Alaska Native Brotherhood in 1940 and when he died in 1989 at age 79, his obituary appeared in The New York Times.
His mother was adopted by a Presbyterian minister and his wife in Petersburg. She went off to college in Washington before returning to Southeast Alaska, where she married in 1931. Fourteen years later she swayed Gov. Ernest Gruening to sign the equal rights bill after her eloquent testimony in defense of Natives being "barely out of savagery," a claim made by Juneau Sen. Allen Shattuck, who opposed the bill.
"I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights," Elizabeth said in response to Shattuck.
Ten-year-old Roy may not have fully grasped the social impact of his mother's message, but he did hear her speak of such injustice in the kitchen and he knew nobody was standing up against it before his mother did - 20 years before the national movement led by Martin Luther King.
"There weren't a whole lot of good guys, you could say, and the good guys stayed in the background. They didn't come out," Roy says. "So I think the door was beginning to open and once that happens, you could see the restrictions and negativism that they had toward the Natives began to disappear.
"And the children ... we've become what we've become, doctors, lawyers and all that kind of stuff."
Sadly, she died in 1958, which was years before the Alaska Legislature established Feb. 16 - the day in 1945 when the Anti-Discrimination Act was signed - as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day.
"As far as I'm concerned it's wonderful that they acknowledged that," Roy says. "Speaking for my father, if I can, he was so very proud of her and when they were considering naming a day after her he told me there an opportunity for him to be included and it might have been Peratrovich Day, for instance, and he declined. He told me he wanted mother to have the honor.
"Everybody knows it was a team."
Memories of home
As a child, Roy remembers how much his parents enjoyed dancing, meeting with friends and cooking in the kitchen. He laughed when telling story about the time Tlignit leader Judson Brown visited.
"They were a bunch of characters growing up in Klawock," Roy says of Brown and his father. "They had a lot of fun together talking about old times. They used to kid mom about making chili that wasn't too hot, so she must have poured everything into it one day because I remember seeing these two guys sitting there eating their bowl of chili ... their faces were just flushed red.
"They never said a word, but they ate it. No more comments about her chili."
Roy remembers driving around Juneau with his mother on Thanksgiving and Christmas, delivering food to homes where Elizabeth knew of families that needed it most.
"She never stopped trying to correct a wrong," he says.
Still, there had to be pressure of following in their footsteps.
"No, I never felt pressure," Roy says. "What I felt was a drive to continue on and maintain their legacy and their history in the proper forms."
So it was no coincidence Roy grew up to be a trailblazer too, graduating from the University of Washington in 1957 and becoming the first Alaska Native to become registered as a professional civil engineer in 1962.
"I was just so afraid of failure, so that's what really drove me to get through school," Roy says. "It was rather terrifying."
In 1979, Roy co-founded Peratrovich, Nottingham and Dredge (PND) Engineers Inc., now a nationally recognized firm with offices in Anchorage, Juneau, Seattle and Boulder, Colo.
Among his many projects is the Sitka Harbor Bridge, the first cable-stayed bridge in the country. He also designed the Brotherhood Bridge in Juneau and served on the Alaska Board of Architects, Engineers and Land Surveyors for a dozen years.
He retired in 1999 after more than 40 years of structural engineering design and now lives in Bainbridge Island, Wash., with his wife, Toby.
It was right around the time he retired that Roy discovered his love for sculpting, although he more or less stumbled into it. He needed something to do and spending his time on the links like so many other seniors wasn't an option.
"I hated golf," he says. "Part of the reason was that I was no damn good and there was no hope to getting much better. It costs a lot of money, too."
Art and life
So his wife signed him up for an art class. He started with pottery and from there graduated to sculpting and three-dimensional art. Then a friend introduced him to bronze sculpting and the rest, as they say, his history.
Roy has made a second career as a bronze sculptor over the last 10 years. The bronze bust of his mother is on permanent display in the foyer of the Capitol in Juneau. Her bronze bust and the one of his father are in the Smithsonian National Museum of the Native American in Washington, D.C.
He recently created his largest piece, a 10-foot high bronze and stainless steel outdoor sculpture done in honor of his parents. It is on permanent display in the center of downtown Anchorage in Peratrovich Park.
"I found my greatest satisfaction on any piece I do is when I see it in bronze and if it turns out right," Roy says. "I guess it's like shooting the winning basket because it's a lot of effort that nobody knows what you went through to achieve that. Only you know."
So it made perfect sense for Roy to create a bronze sculpture of his mother. After all, who knew her better? He went through photo albums and found the perfect picture to use as his template.
He studied it like a test and depicted every last detail, including each curl of hair.
"If you look at it, she had big waves; she had real nice dark, brownish-black hair, and beautiful curls," Roy says. "It didn't mean anything to me at the time, but when I had to sculpt them I said, 'Oh my God, how am I going to do that?' That's one of the most important parts to the whole thing.
So he sculpted each curl, some twisting one way and some overlapping another way. He used a lost-wax method, learning it step by step by word of mouth and teaching himself. He never took a class.
Pretty soon, though, he got the hang of it.
"I really don't like doing hair," Roy says with a laugh.
As a finishing touch, he dressed his mother in a blouse with a shawl. "Something to make it look like a party dress," he says.
The choice of wardrobe carried special significance.
"She looked this way on the day that my parents went to the Baranof Hotel (in Juneau), where dad said they danced all night in a hotel that they weren't allowed to be in prior to the passage of the 1945 bill," he says.
Sculpting Elizabeth Peratrovich, it turns out, brought him closer to his mom.
"It brought back a lot of memories," Roy says. "Once I got into it I could just get lost in it. I'd sit there all day and not move. It was very satisfying experience through the whole thing."
Van Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 907-348-2452-9870, ext. 452