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Governor Gruening Signs the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945

“What the Hell is a duck in?”

That must have been my first response to one of the stories I want to write about today. Hopefully, I didn’t say it out loud, but the duck-in is one of many historical narratives that has changed my sense of the political landscape since coming to Alaska.

Yes, I’m still a lefty. I said “changed” not “destroyed.”

And like many a lefty, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about civil rights issue. You know, Martin Luther King, the Freedom Rides, Brown vs. Board of Education, …all good stuff!

Since coming to Alaska, I have been blessed to learn about several new and unexpected additions to the list of civil rights struggles, some with clear parallels to those taking place outside Alaska.

Somewhere in my list of my thoughts about nuclear power, I now add the struggle over Project Chariot. Next to the relocation of Japanese in World War II, I now have a definite place for the story of Anangan (Aleutian) relocation. And of course the big story up here, at least in my mental timeline would certainly be passage of the Alaska Native Lands Claims Act.

But I don’t want to talk about any of those things today.

No, what interests me at the moment is a range of smaller battles, and the story of those who fought them. I’m talking about battles like the one fought by Alberta Schenck.

Alberta Schenck Letter

Who is Alberta Schenck? Well, was the best kind of troublemaker. As a girl of mixed heritage (her mother was Inupiat and her father was white), Schenck faced discrimination against Alaska Natives and “half breeds” on several occasions. At the age of 16, she wrote this letter to the editor of the Nome Nugget, protesting the segregated seating of natives and whites at a local movie house, known as the Dream Theater. To say that the significance of her protest stretched beyond the specific policies of that specific theater would be an understatement.

It’s worth noting that Schenck herself worked at Dream Theater, at least she did until the letter was published. She later returned to that very theater on a date with a white army sergeant. After refusing to leave her seat, the Chief of Police for the city of Nome physically removed Schenck from her seat and she spent the night in jail.

Outrage over Schenck’s arrest helped to fuel for passage of the Anti-Dicrimnatory act of 1945. She was subsequently elected Queen of Nome during the Spring Carnival of that year. This was in 1944, 11 years before Rosa Parks picked her fight with the city of Montgomery Alabama. …well before the sit-ins, or the freedom rides.

And then of course there is Elizabeth Peratrovitch, a Tlingit Native whose testimony before the territorial senate helped to secure the final passage of the Anti-Discriminatory Act, mentioned above. She said a lot of things in that testimony, but this particular line is particularly memorable:

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.

With actions like those of Alberta Schenck and testimony such as that of Elizabeth Peratrovich, the territory finally passed a law banning such acts of discrimination.

I should add that the law did not merely eliminate discriminatory policies at the government level; it forbade discrimination by private businesses. Opponents of the bill had argued, as many do today, that government had no role to play in limiting the choices of private businessmen. Fortunately, that argument lost in 1945, as it did in 1964, and as it should today. Those who imagine it is enough to keep government policies free of racial bias have seriously underestimated the impact of private discrimination. Here as elsewhere the individual decisions of private businesses were the centerpiece of segregation.

But my all time favorite story about civil disobedience in the great state of Alaska would have to be the “Duck in.” This narrative begins in 1918 with a treaty between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Under this treaty, the U.S. agreed to ban the taking of migratory waterfowl from the period between March 10th and September 1st.

So what’s the trouble? That is the ONLY time that migratory waterfowl can be found on the North Slope of Alaska. For a people very much dependent on subsistence hunting for their survival, the terms of this treaty removed a critical resource from the Spring and Summer menu.

The issue does not appear to have been much of a problem, at least not until Alaska became a state and began to enforce Federal laws with greater diligence. Then Fish and Wildlife officers began arresting people and confiscating their weapons, and their catch.

Duck Hunters at Point Barrow

How did the Inupiat population of Barrow respond to the arrest of people in their own community? How did they deal with a game warden in town to enforce the hunting regulations?

Well, they were very cooperative.

He found about a hundred and fifty Barrow residents outside his hotel room one day, each with a duck in hand. He didn’t have enough forms to process all the arrests, so Barrow Magistrate Sadie Neakok advised him to record the names on extra paper and attach them to the main form. And thus, everyone with a duck got counted.

Subsequent to this, State Senator, Eben Hopson, sent a request to then Governor, William Egan, asking that welfare officials be sent to help take care of all the children whose parents would be locked up due to enforcement of the law.

…and Fish and Wildlife simply stopped enforcing the regulations.

That’s called a ‘win’ folks!

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Okay, that’s it, just a few of my favorite stories about troublesome Alaska Natives. I haven’t covered any of this with sufficient detail to do justice to these stories, so I’ll just briefly mention some better sources:

Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson produced a wonderful documentary on the Duck In. It is available through the North Slope Borough School District.

Wikipedia does seem to have a page on Elizabeth Peratrovitch. , and she is mentioned in quite a few additional sources. This one from Alaschool.org has a pretty thorough discussion of her contributions to the state of Alaska.

Numerous references to Alberta Schenck may be found in sundry parts of the net. Her memorial website would be a good place to start.

One good reading on the subject of discrimination would be an article by Terrence M. Cole, “Jim Crow in Alaska: The Passage of the Alaska Equal Rights act of 1945,” in Stephen W. Haycox and Mary Childers Mangusso (eds.) An Alaska Anthology: Interpreting the Past, (Seattle and London. University of Washington Press, 1996) pp 314-335.

The Images of Governor Gruening signing the Anti-discriminatory Act, Elizabeth Peratrovich, and Alberta Schenck’s letter are from Alaska’s Digital Archives. The image of Duck Hunters came from the Marine Image Bank of the Digital Collections at the University of Washington.