Fighter in Velvet Gloves

by K.J. Lincoln

Fighter in Velvet Gloves is a book written about the life of Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich, who is known for her role in helping to fight for civil rights for all Alaskan natives at a time when the sting of racism was rampant, untethered, and not illegal.

The author of the book is Annie Boochever. She wrote this book with the help of Roy Peratrovich Jr., the last remaining living child Elizabeth and Roy Sr.

Throughout the reading, the book portrays how Elizabeth and her husband Roy bravely worked to eliminate the evils of racism at a time when Alaska was still a territory. Their work resulted in the passage of the Anti-Discrimination Act.

This act surpassed passage of President Lyndon Johnson’s U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 by nearly two decades. In this way, Elizabeth and Roy helped Alaska be the leader in the country’s charge to end racial discrimination.

The book begins when Elizabeth was born. We did not know that she was adopted at birth until we read the book. Her adoptive parents raised her in the Tlingit way while living in southeast Alaska, their native homeland. She attended celebrations and listened to the speakers give their speeches, danced, and ate all their native foods. She learned how to collect spruce roots to make baskets with her mother, Jean Wanamaker.

Elizabeth could speak both Tlingit and English. Her Tlingit name was Kaaxgal.aat and she belonged to the Sockeye Salmon clan.

Elizabeth’s story continues through her marriage to Roy Peratrovich and the birth of their children. It tells of how the family moved to Juneau where Elizabeth enrolled her children at the Fifth Street School which was in their neighborhood. The school did not want the children to attend there, so Elizabeth went to talk with the superintendent.

According to the book, it is not known what she said during that meeting but immediately after, she was allowed to enroll her children.

This book goes beyond what little we know of Elizabeth and opens a door into her incredible life. There are excerpts from her letters that give you a sense of what kind of voice she had and of how she felt about her fight for civil rights.

On the cover it reads, “a true story for young teens – Alaska Civil Rights Hero Elizabeth Peratrovich”. Annie Boochever said that this book is intended for middle school children but every child of all ages can read it to learn of the history of the civil rights movement in Alaska.

To this day, Alaskans celebrate the work of Elizabeth and her husband and the others who worked so hard to lay the foundation of civil rights for all. Elizabeth delivered her powerful speech on the Territorial Senate floor during debate on the anti-discrimination law on February 5, 1945, which resulted in passage of this historic vote.

Elizabeth worked with grace and dignity while maintaining her elegance and composure in her mission to fight against the unfair practices towards Alaskan Natives.

Where does “fighter in velvet gloves” come from?

“Stella Martin, Yaan da yein, called my mother ‘a fighter with velvet gloves’”, writes Roy Peratrovich Jr. “Stella was a Tlingit Indian from Kaix’ (Kake, Alaska). She was a champion of equal rights and a woman of great accomplishment herself. She was also a good friend of Mom’s, and I think she got it right.”

Stay tuned, the Kuskokwim Consortium Library is planning on having the author of Fighter in Velvet Gloves, Annie Boochover, come to Bethel for a visit and to talk about her book.