Introduction: This is the first two paragraphs of a letter from civil rights activist, Elizabeth Peratrovich to then-Governor of Alaska, Earnest Gruening, the full text of which is available at Alaskool.org. In it, she addresses one of several instances of discrimination against Alaska Natives. In this case, it is a private business, but as Elizabeth notes in the passage presented below such discrimination was also present in state policies.
Note: The Photo comes via the National Women’s History Museum.
Key Facts: The letter is dated, December 30th, 1941, effectively placing it in the earliest days of World War II. Alaska was not yet a state; it was a Federal Territory. Elizabeth Peratrovich was a Tlingit woman. Her people are native to Southeast Alaska which ironically puts them in the Northwest Coast culture area as anthropologists would describe it. Peratrovich would go on to champion the Anti Discriminatory Act of 1945, a piece of Alaska state legislation preceding the U.S. civil rights act by nearly 20 years.
Dear Mr. Gruening,
My attention has been called to a business establishment in Douglas, namely, “Douglas Inn,” which has a sign on the door which reads, “No Natives Allowed.”
In view of the present emergency, when unity is being stressed, don’t you think that it is very Un-American? We have always contended that we are entitled to every benefit that is accorded our so-called White Brothers. We pay the required taxes, taxes in some instances that we feel are unjust, such as the School tax. Our Native people pay the School tax each year to educate the White children, yet they try to exclude our children from these schools.
Comments: This is by no means the most impressive work left behind by Elizabeth Peratrovich, but it is relatively accessible to argument analysis. Given sufficient flexibility to pursue an open discussion, it might make for an interesting jumping off point into some historical discussion about discrimination and the Alaskan civil rights movement.
I should also say that sometimes argument analysis does a poor job of assessing the significance of elements in a text. Elizabeth’s comments on discrimination in the schools are essentially offered as part of the reasoning for changing a private business practice. In effect, she is also calling attention to government policies, and that has an impact beyond its support for the conclusion of the argument.
Statements: Relevant pieces of the argument have been reproduced below. Note that two sentences have been split into more than one statement and the resulting fragments have been rewritten slightly to fix up the resulting grammar. Also, I broke the first sentence up into three separate claims. As always rewritten sections have been presented in square brackets, as has a missing assertion supplied below (statement 10).
 [The nation is experiencing an emergency.]
 [The national emergency calls for a unified effort to resolve it.]
 [Discriminating against other Americans at this time is Un-American.]
 We have always contended that we are entitled to every benefit that is accorded our so-called White Brothers.
 We pay the required taxes[.]
 [We Alaska Natives feel that these in some instances these taxes are unjust.]
 [The School tax is an example of such an unjust law.]
 Our Native people pay the School tax each year to educate the White children[.]
 [Yet, white people] try to exclude our children from these schools.
[] [It is unfair to tax people for services they are excluded from using.]
Discussion: This argument raises the issues of Missing Assertions , Paraphrasing, and Rhetorical Questions.
Missing Assertions: I have added a missing assumption to the effect that it is unfair to tax Alaska Natives for schools they cannot attend (statement 10). This is added to 7+8, thus providing the major premise that generates 7 from those two assumptions.
Paraphrasing: In addition to the rewriting the rhetorical question (see below), the first sentence, actually contains 3 separate claims, which I have written above as statements 1-3.
Rhetorical Questions: The first sentence is a classic rhetorical question. That sentence has been broken up into three components, the third of which originally took the form of a question It has been rewritten as a statement.
Diagram: Elizabeth gets to her main point (i.e. the conclusion) at the end of the first sentence. The first two clauses of that sentence provide a quick argument for the 3rd using the circumstance of war to appeal to patriotism. The rest of the passage begins a more detailed argument about the fairness of allowing discrimination against Alaska Natives in view of taxation. Statements 8 and 9 (as well as the missing assumption of statement 10) explain the unfairness of school taxing for the schools (statement 7). That is then used as an example showing that some of the taxes imposed on Alaska Natives are unjust (statement 6) which is then combined with a claim that they pay these taxes (statement 5) to argue that Alaska Natives are entitled to the same benefits as other Alaskans (statement 4). This is then used to argue once again for the general conclusion (statement 3).
Evaluation: Most of this is pretty straight forward, and I don’t see much need to pick it apart here. I’ll just have a couple random thoughts on various aspects of the argument:
1) Evaluating the truth of statement 2 could lead to some interesting questions about whether or not some values and loyalties might trump the need for unified effort in dealing with national emergencies (and in particular wars).
2) It might be worth unpacking Alaskan educational policies for the purposes of evaluating Elizabeth’s arguments on the taxation system and discrimination against Alaska Natives. At present, I just don’t know the history of those laws well enough to provide that analysis.
Final thoughts: Elizabeth Peratrovich kicks ass.