Art Beat: Native women salute Peratrovich in group show

Mike Dunham
Participants in the annual Elizabeth Peratrovich Day parade march down Lincoln Street on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012, in Sitka. Elizabeth Peratrovich Day celebrates the 1940s civil rights activist who was also a Sitka resident and grand president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood organization.
The cover of Diane Benson's "Spruce Tips in the Fog" shows the author as an infant being held by her mother.
"Reading Room," mixed media by Margo Klass, in "Proximity" at the Anchorage Museum.
Focus Unbound

Today, Elizabeth Peratrovich Day, marks the enactment in 1945 of Alaska's anti-discrimination law, the first in the nation, and the Tlingit woman whose speech to the Territorial Legislature is credited with getting the law passed.

Peratrovich addressed the lawmakers from the gallery as a member of the public and an Alaska Native leader. She noted the harm done by discrimination and drew a connection between discrimination and the racist ideology of Nazi Germany, with which America was at war.

Such a day ought not to pass without some celebratory verse, but so far I've found only one poem: "Elizabeth," by Diane Benson, a deeply personal and literary piece that speaks to the profound effect of Peratrovich on the poet. More on that in a moment.

What I couldn't find was any old-fashioned rhyming narrative about the speech itself. So for readers seeking something sing-songy and minimally literate, I offer the following:



Elizabeth Peratrovich was sitting with the folks

And listening to the arguments of legislative blokes


Who said Alaska Natives shouldn't fraternize with whites


At theaters or restaurants with live bands on Friday nights.

She rose then to remind us all about our Bill of Rights.


Elizabeth Peratrovich stood steady as a queen,


And history stood beside her, and silence hushed the scene.


The winter rain stopped drumming, which Juneau Town found strange.


The hurricane Chinook ceased howling off the Coastal Range.

Yet through the walls each person felt the potent wind of change.


Elizabeth Peratrovich's voice rose in the hall:


The laws are not the law unless applied the same to all.


Some claim their race gives them the right to knock another dead.


Against such claims men - black, white, brown - in battlefields now tread.

And when they fall for justice's sake, the blood of each runs red.


Elizabeth Peratrovich then quietly sat down.


The legislators shared a chastened glance and thoughtful frown.


They called the vote for equal rights. "Aye" triumphed over "nay."


Now, laws are not the law unless the same for all, we say, 

And February 16 is Peratrovich's Day.

More precise accounts of the speech can be found in history books and the film "For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska," in which Benson plays the role of Elizabeth Peratrovich.

The book in which I found "Elizabeth," "Spruce Tips in the Fog," is a brand-new collection. It debuted at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation Gallery during the First Friday opening for this month's art show, a tribute to Peratrovich by Alaska Native women artists.

A framed copy of the poem is on display with the other artworks. I was struck by the layout of alternating horizontal and vertical blocks of copy. Benson pointed out that the text forms the shape of the letter "E."

Work by several well-known Alaska Native women artists is featured in the show, including mask forms by Susie Bevins and Kathleen Carlo and a marvelously complex skin basket by Audrey Armstrong. Some pieces are purely traditional, like Lena Ferguson's magnificent Cup'ik dance stick with rows of puffins, all clutching fish in their beaks. Others are strongly contemporary, like "Recycled Inupiaq Woman," a collage by Holly Nordlum. Some are political, like Apayo Moore's depiction of Peratrovich as Rosie the Riveter. Some are plain fun, like Lena Amason's seals painted on a snowboard.

Special attractions include the 1940s dress suit and other items worn by Benson in the film and a handkerchief adorned with embroidery done by Elizabeth herself. The handkerchief was given to her by members of the Peratrovich family.

Benson, who currently teaches Alaska literature online for the University of Alaska Southeast, recently returned from London, where she performed some of her stage pieces, including one about Peratrovich called "When My Spirit Raised Its Hands." But she said the strongest reaction was to a new work tentatively titled "Mother American Blue," about her relationship with her son Latseen, who was seriously wounded in combat in Iraq. The piece left the listeners in a state of theatrical shell-shock.

"The audience wouldn't move," she told me. "They just kept sitting there like they were expecting a conversation-with-the-playwright session, but that wasn't scheduled until the next night. I finally said, 'Do we need to talk about this?' And so we talked about it for more than an hour."

"Spruce Tips in the Fog" includes a variety of forms: poetry, creative nonfiction and short stories. At this time it is available only at the gallery, 500 W. 6th Ave.

(Note: Some readers have said they are confused by the above. The poem "Elizabeth Peratrovich has her say, under my byline, is mine... that is, by Mike Dunham. The poem "Elizabeth" is by Diane Benson and is in her book, "Spruce Tips in the Fog" and on display at the above mentioned gallery, where you can buy the book.)

First Friday rambles

The big show opening Feb. 7, and the one with the biggest crowd, was the Anchorage Museum's "Gyre: The Plastic Ocean," an art and science exhibit about the impact of discarded plastic on marine ecosystems. I was so inspired that I immediately went to the dollar store, bought a bunch of brightly colored plastic items and tossed them into Cook Inlet so that the artists can have more material.

Just joking. There's a lot of eye-catching artwork in the show, along with videos and data. Say what you will about plastic, but it holds its color well. However, this is the kind of display that takes time to appreciate, and squeezing it in among the other First Friday openings with the crowds and tight time frame wasn't really optimal. Happily, it will be on display through Sept. 6. It strikes me as an excellent show to bring children to, especially with the upcoming spring school break. And please, dispose of your plastic products properly.

More impressive as art is "Proximity" by Margo Klass of Fairbanks, on the top floor of the museum. Klass's work consists of book and box forms using found items and worked with exquisite detail. The tiny hinges, latches and doorstops of the boxes show jeweler-like detail applied to natural materials.

Three of the pieces particularly stick with me. "Temple II" is a box topped with a magnifying lens; within the box is a smooth creek stone. My impression is that, if positioned in sunlight, the lens will focus the beam on the stone and the observer can watch it move over the course of a day. It may be hot enough to set fire to anything that's not a rock.

Another box, "Reading Room," features a miniature ladder leading to a miniature chair. The insides of the doors of the box become shelves that include several of Klass's book forms, which can be removed and opened. Like the other boxes in the show, some of which are rather complex with multiple hinges, it is accompanied by a little video that lets you see what it looks like open, closed and in between.

The third piece is "Compline -- Winter Solstice," the last in her "An Alaskan Book of Hours" series, which is displayed in its own space separate from the rest of the show on the fourth floor. Neither book nor box, it is simply pretty and evocative, using dark colors and branches, with the notably non-natural materials in the frame (some steel wedges, I think) employed with a sense of simplicity and understatement. That pleased me more than the items in the show that prominently used bolts or socks or other man-made relics.

"Proximity" remains on display through April 20.

More thoughts on the Feb. 7 First Friday openings are posted at

Smashing debut

Also on Feb. 7, the Anchorage Civic Orchestra gave its winter concert in Sydney Laurence Theatre. A highlight was a very well-played rendition of Mozart's "Serenade for Eight Winds in C Minor," possibly the first time the piece has been played in Anchorage.

But the stars were the two high school winners of ACO's Concerto Competition, for which the orchestra provided credible support. South junior Allison Stapleford nimbly handled the virtuosic clarinet scales and leaps of Weber's "Concertino in E-flat Major." Naomi Endres gave a jaw-dropping performance of the Allegro from Georg Druschetzky's surprisingly melodic "Concerto for Six Timpani" -- though it did raise the question of how one practices for such a performance. Does she have six kettle drums set up in the family living room?

"The Butler" author speaks

Wil Haygood, prize-winning author of "The Butler," the account of White House butler Cecil Gaines that was turned into a recent movie, will speak at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 20 at UAA's Wendy Williamson Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.

Change of address

Mitch Kitter of Treft.Punkt Studio, featured in last week's lead story about a same-sex couples photography project, says the studio is rebranding and plans to change the website given in the article. The new web address, appropriately, is

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.