It’s coming up on Alaska Civil Rights/Martin Luther King Jr. Day and once again the question has reappeared. Archivists, librarians, and historians around the state are being asked: “Where do I find the text of Elizabeth Peratrovich’s speech to the Legislature?”
Here’s my standard answer: “It doesn’t exist.” Let me clarify, as I do to the people to whom I say that. Archivists usually know better than to categorically deny a document exists. It’s a very dangerous thing because about the time we do, the document in question gets found or somebody tells us that they just saw it the day before. So I’m saying it, mostly in hope that I’ll be proved wrong. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Certainly re-creations of Mrs. Peratrovich’s speech have appeared in various sources such as Diane Benson’s play When My Spirit Raised Its Hands. And individuals who were in the Legislative audience that day have provided their recollections in various published sources (choose your favorite search engine and you’ll find reviews pointing you to different memoirs and documentaries.)
The Peratrovich family has generously shared copies of documents in their possession with several of the libraries in Alaska. Rare Books at the Consortium Library has a 4-binder set of these materials. No full text there. A lot of the quotes we’ve seen probably come from the newspaper coverage of the time like the article in the Juneau Empire which the Alaska State Library’s Historical Collections has scanned and placed on the Alaska’s Digital Archives. Search Elizabeth Peratrovich speech on your favorite search engine, you’ll find lots of hits leading to some excellent, well-researched sites. With lots of quotes, many of which appear to have come from the Juneau Empire coverage. Take a look at the Territorial Legislature’s Journals and you’ll discover that while those do document what the Legislature was doing in 1945, there is no full-text record of what was said in the Legislature in those volumes.
And that all leads me back to why I don’t think it exists–or perhaps hasn’t been found or published yet. We get several questions a year from people looking for the text of the speech. Mrs. Peratrovich is fascinating to students of Alaska history and civil rights. Documentarians, artists, people from all walks of life have researched Mrs. Peratrovich. I can’t help but think that given her popularity and given how many requests we field every year from people seeking the full text of her speech, that if it was out there, it would have been published over and over again. The speech extracts certainly show up a lot–why not a full text?
We haven’t done extensive research trying to locate it, I’ll admit. Our job as archivists is to assist you with your research by putting you in touch with records in our holdings that might address your research subject. That means we’re more likely to concentrate on describing the materials in our collections and to suggest research paths you might follow, not so much to do research ourselves. And since we’re pretty sure we don’t have a copy of the text here in A&SC, we’ve left it to our dedicated researchers to follow up in sources we don’t have. Also, we don’t spend a lot of time working with published sources: partly because we don’t have a lot of them in archives but also because that’s something that librarians are best at. But what we’re hearing from our librarian colleagues is that they aren’t seeing it either. So maybe it’s not out there. If you know better–and we hope you do–we look forward to hearing from you. We meet a lot of people who are seeking the answer you have. We hope you’re willing to share.
In the meantime, we’d like to point you to two great images that two of our archival institutions here in Alaska have placed online in the Alaska’s Digital Archives. The Alaska State Library’s Historical Collections and the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center both have images of the signing of the Alaska Civil Rights law where Mrs. Peratrovich was in attendance. Thank you to both institutions for sharing those with all of us.
I was filming Diane Benson in a performance of her play, “When My Spirit Raised Its Hands” at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. When Diane finished her recreation of the famous Elizabeth speech to the Territorial Legislature, I noticed that there was an elder standing a few feet away from me in the back and she was softly weeping. When asked if she was all right, she slowly replied that she had been a childhood friend of Elizabeth’s and Diane’s portrayal of Elizabeth flooded her with memories of her friend. The lady said that Diane looked like Elizabeth, spoke like her and, as far as she recalled, said what was virtually the same speech. It was so real that she was moved to tears.
Thank you for sharing such a wonderful memory. Sometimes I wonder why so many people seek out a transcription of the speech when speeches are really about movement and tone and effect and emotions and the relationships between the speaker and the audience. Exact transcriptions can never really capture that: what does is memories like yours and the elder who spoke with you. Can the exact words ever matter so much as the effect?
Coming from the perspective of an English teacher, words matter. I am currently looking for a transcript for my kids to close read. Words matter, the way they’re delivered matter, and they are historical artifacts as anything else would be. I do enjoy your question though, can the exact words ever matter so much as the effect? I will definitely be using that as a topic to discuss in my classroom.