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Elizabeth Peratrovich celebration incorporates hands-on learning


February 20, 2020 | View PDF

Lori Giddings

Third through fifth graders perform a dance at Elizabeth Peratrovich Day celebration.

On Feb. 18, students and families gathered in the Haines School gym for performances celebrating Elizabeth Peratrovich Day followed by games from the Native Youth Olympics, including scissor broad jump, one-foot high kick, Eskimo stick pull, and kneel jump.

The celebration of the Native civil rights leader kicked off with Alaska Native dances performed by third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students. High schoolers led younger students in the dances. It's important to celebrate Peratrovich's legacy as a civil rights leader and attaching learning to activities helps children remember, said Natalie Benassi, the event's organizer and indigenous education program coordinator at the school. "It breaks it up. We do something different with each group according to their skill level."

"Last year was the first year we did (Native Youth Olympics) games," Benassi said. They provide another way for students to connect with the material and "get them up and moving and excited."

"My intention for (the celebration) is to say this is (Peratrovich's) story and make them think about what their story will be, how can they take her courage and move it forward into the present day," Benassi said.

"We never want to forget the privilege of civil rights," said school principal Rene Martin, reading comments on behalf of Chilkoot Indian Association member Harriet Brouillette, who could not attend in person due to travel complications. Peratrovich's "one voice was the start of a movement... Your voice could be that one voice that brings us together."

Seventy-five years ago, Tlingit leader Peratrovich and her husband rallied support for the passage of Alaska's 1945 Anti-Discrimination Act, the first law in the U.S. to bar race-based discrimination. Peratrovich's moving speech before the Alaska Legislature played a critical role in the act's passage.

She's a state hero," Alaska Native Sisterhood member and event volunteer Deb Kemp said. "She had to overcome so much as a woman and as a minority during that time period."

"She got it done through grace and poise. I love that (her methods were) so calm and peaceful," Benassi said.

Many of the songs performed at the assembly spoke to these themes. The high school choir sang "One Voice," which described the power of a group of people joining together for a single purpose. And kindergarteners through fourth graders performed a song called "Listen" about how people across the planet are connected and "I Think You're Wonderful," a song about lifting up others as a way to lift up an entire community.

Benassi hung a poster on the wall of the gym with a picture of Peratrovich and encouraged students to stick post-it notes to the board responding to the prompts "How can we eliminate discrimination in the world?" and "Elizabeth Peratrovich's story has inspired me to..." Responses ranged from "stand up for others and myself " to "help spread inspiration." Other popular responses included "speak my mind" and "show people everyone's equal."

During the assembly, Haines student Maddox Rogers gave a review of a new Elizabeth Peratrovich biography written for young teens, "Fighter in Velvet Gloves: Alaska Civil Rights Hero Elizabeth Peratrovich," which he had read for class. He said the book helped him "understand a lot more about what a person can achieve when they don't give up." The book contains a good message not only for children but also for adults, he said.

Ceri Godinez

Kindergarten through fourth-grade students perform "Listen" at Elizabeth Peratrovich Day celebration.

Benassi said she can tell the lessons from Peratrovich Day celebrations are sticking with students. "As we were sewing vests with the third-grade class in preparation for the event, one student started singing the Elizabeth Peratrovich song," she said. It's a song students in that class learned for a Peratrovich Day celebration several years earlier. Others in the class joined in, and pretty soon, they were all singing songs about love and resilience, she said. "I think it turned into a version of the Beatles song 'All You Need Is Love.'"

The Peratrovich Day celebration at the school involves community-wide collaboration, Benassi said. While she organizes the event, it involves contributions from the entire school staff as well as organizations including the Alaska Native Sisterhood, the Alaska Native Brotherhood, the Chilkoot Indian Association, and the Chilkat Indian Village.


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