Saturday, February 09, 2019


"You're an Indian, aren't you?
Roy answered, "Yes, I am."
"Your wife too?"
"Well, I'd like to help you, but other people around here don't want me to rent to Indians."

When most people think of civil rights, their thoughts turn to the 1960s. They may remember photographs of Martin Luther King and others who spoke, marched, or participated in sit-ins. Some people, however, have a different memory of people fighting for civil rights. Their memories are of the 1940s when Native Alaskans fought for their rights.

Encounters like the one at the top of this post are in Fighter in Velvet Gloves: Alaska Civil Rights Hero Elizabeth Peratrovich.

Cover art by Apayo Moore 

Due out on February 16, 2019 from the University of Alaska Press, it is definitely going to be one that I recommend over and over for its history of the civil rights work in Alaska, its use of Tlingit words throughout, and of course, because it is about a Native woman. Photos throughout are exceptional.

The first sentence in the first chapter is of Peratrovich's birth:
On July 4, 1911, in the Southeast Alaska community of Gánti Yaakw Séedi (Petersburg), Edith Tagcook Paul from Deishú (Haines) gave birth to the baby girl who would grow up to be Elizabeth Jean Peratrovich. 
That choice--to put the English words in parenthesis--is seen throughout the book. Here's the third sentence of the first chapter:
Over thousands of years they developed cultures and a way of life especially suited to their Haa Aanî, or homeland. 

Peratrovich was fluent in both, English and Tlingit. Her Tlingit name was Kaaxgal.aat. In 1912 a group of Native people from Southeast Alaska gathered in Sitka and formed the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) and two years later, the Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS). Elizabeth's father was a founder of the ANB, which is now recognized as the oldest Indigenous civil rights organization in the world. The organizations worked to improve educational opportunities, employment, social services, health services, and housing.

Societal discrimination in Alaska was as blatant as it was in the U.S. There were signs like "No Natives Allowed" on businesses. There were signs that said "White Trade Only." There were assurances that customers wouldn't have to come in contact with people who weren't white. This photo is in the book:

Historic sign, Front Street, Juneau, circa 1943.
Alaska State Library. Winter and Pond Collection. ASL-PCA-1050.

Some chapters include examples of societal racism. In one, you'll learn about schools where only white children could attend. In another, you'll learn that during World War II, almost 9,000 Alaska Native people were forced to leave their homes because the US Army thought that destroying their villages would make it harder for the Japanese to invade that part of Alaska. You'll learn that Native Alaskan men were in the armed services--but prejudicial ideas about Native women led the army to issue an order prohibiting soldiers from associating with Alaska Native women, even if the woman was part of the soldier's family! The chapter on voting has a page called "The Toilet Paper Defense" that is stunning.

There's other parts of the book that are intimate, personal looks at Elizabeth Peratrovich. She was adopted and did not know her birth mother. But that woman knew Elizabeth and, it seems, wanted to be near her. I won't say more about that, but it is a sad point in the story.

I highly recommend Fighter in Velvet Gloves. Some readers will be uncomfortable to read about the racism directed at Alaska Native people. Accounts like these mess with the idea that this country is exceptional, that it is (or was) "great." These accounts have received very little attention in children's or young adult literature--but they're very important. Change is possible, but only when problems are identified and made visible.

I'll end with some words in Chapter 14, titled "Carefully Chosen Words." It is about her speech on the day the Alaska legislature was debating the anti-discrimination bill that would be signed long before the US Civil Rights Act was passed. That day, she wore velvet gloves.
Elizabeth took a deep breath. She felt she was ready, but would her words have any effect? She looked at Lori and thought about what kind of life her daughter would have with those ugly signs plastered around town. She thought of the birth mother she never knew, and of her dear adoptive mother, and prickled at the racism they surely must have suffered. She thought of her adoptive father, Andrew, and about how kind he was and how powerful his sermons were. Words were the tools that had served her all her life, and she and Roy Sr. had spent hours thinking about just the right ones for this occasion. Now was the time. 

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

American Indian Library Association's Statement Against Racism and Harassment

During and after the 2019 ALA Midwinter meeting in Seattle, several people shared negative experiences of harassment that took place at the Midwinter meeting. Most widely shared was April Hathcock's account (shared at her blog on January 30, 2019) of a meeting of ALA's Council Forum.

In response to the reports, the American Indian Library Association released this statement on Feb. 1, 2019:
The American Indian Library Association stands with the individuals who experienced racism and discrimination at the 2019 ALA Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Seattle, WA. We stand with those who preserve and celebrate all cultures. Racism and discrimination dishonor every culture.
As an ethnic affiliate of the American Library Association (ALA), AILA is a membership action group that addresses the library-related needs of American Indians and Alaska Natives. AILA is committed to promoting true representations of American Indian cultures, languages, and values. As AILA reaches its 40th anniversary, we strongly support librarians of color. We urge the American Library Association to address racism and discrimination in the profession at the institutional level and at all professional development meetings. 
The American Indian Library Association joins our fellow ethnic affiliates, APALA, BCALA, CALA, and REFORMA, and offers our support to the American Library Association in order to realize ALA's future. AILA appreciates the work of Jody Gray, Director of the Office for Diversity, Literacy & Outreach Services for American Library Association and is committed to working with ALA to address racism, bias, and discrimination in our communities.

I support AILA's statement, April Hathcock, and those who have spoken up about their experiences. Efforts by some to cast those of us who speak up as "uncivil" or "unprofessional" are disingenuous. That same charge has been leveled at me (Debbie), as well. After being named to give the prestigious Arbuthnot lecture, people wrote letters to say I am unprofessional and undeserving of the honor. I will, however, give that lecture in April.

On January 31, issued a statement about Midwinter:
The ALA Executive Board has released the following statement regarding a recent incident during Council Forum at the ALA Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Seattle.
"We should not – and do not – accept harassment, bullying or discrimination of any kind in our profession or the work of our Association. These behaviors go against our values. Violations to our code of conduct will not be tolerated.   
"We established a code of conduct because we take the responsibility of being respectful to each other very seriously. 
"We send our sincere apologies to Councilor April Hathcock for what she went through at Council Forum, which is unacceptable and doesn’t align with our core values.  
"The ALA attorney and President-Elect met with April Hathcock in the Council meeting room shortly before Council III to share some nonpublic information about events after the incident in question. ALA leaders deeply regrets any distress this caused; it was not intent of the attorney or ALA to threaten Ms Hathcock in any way.      
"The Councilor who instigated the incident has resigned and the Executive Board has accepted his resignation. 
"We also offer our sincere apologies to members who also experienced violations of the code of conduct at the Midwinter meeting. 
"We want to recognize that this incident has caused a lot of hurt and we are working diligently to ensure that at all ALA events participants are - and feel - respected.   
"The Executive Board will form a working group to look at Council Forum and ways to make it a safer space up to its continued viability. 
"We will review the current code of conduct complaint process to make it stronger and more effective. 
"We will work on facilitated racial equity training for Annual Conference during Council 1; that training and the code of conduct will be built into Council Orientation moving forward. 
"In collaboration with the Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services, we will coordinate online and in-person resources on equity, diversity and inclusion for all members and for ALA staff members. 
"ALA and its Divisions have developed resources to embed principles of equity, diversity and inclusion in the work library workers do; see specifics for 2018 here. Last October during the 2018 Fall Executive Board Meeting, the Executive Board voted to affirm that ALA will apply a social justice framework to the ALA Strategic Directions for the next three-to-five years in the areas of Advocacy, Information Policy, Professional and Leadership Development, and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. We are building on the 2019 President’s Program about “White Fragility.”  
"This work can be messy, it takes time, but the Executive Board strives to create a better association every day. We ask for your collaboration to help us break through the systems of oppression and do the right thing at the right time, each time, as it should be done."
My own thoughts are that the US is in an intense period of change. Those who characterize our work as "unprofessional" are, perhaps, defending their position and power as our voices and collective actions push at their power and influence. Many are using their power and influence to keep the status quo in place. We're pushing and will continue to push for equity and justice, in the many places we do that work.