March 12, 2010

Native origin of Alaska's flag

Alaska State Flag, and Song, Intertwined Around Benny BensonBenny Benson was born in Chignik, a small village on the south shore of the Alaska Peninsula on October 12, 1913. John Ben Benson, Jr. was his full given name.

His father, John Ben Benson, was a Swedish fisherman and his mother, Tatiana Schebolein, was an Aleut-Russian. During these years Alaska Native villages were being hit with waves of devastating epidemics and at the age of 3, Benny, his younger brother and older sister lost their mother to pneumonia and lost their house to a fire. This series of events caused Ben Benson, Sr. to split up his family. Benny and his brother Carl were sent to an orphanage in Unalaska and Elsie was sent to Oregon.

In the first months of 1926, Territorial Gov. George Parks was working hard for the cause of statehood. During a trip to Washington, D.C., he saw the flags of the 48 states flying outside the old Post Office Building and after conversing with the postmaster general he was convinced that Alaska also needed a flag to fly alongside the others. He persuaded the Alaska American Legion to hold a contest open to all Alaskan children grades 7-12 to design a flag for the state.

The contest winner was Benny Benson, a seventh-grader at the territorial school at Seward. His design of eight stars to represent the Big Dipper, placed on a blue background to represent the sky, and the forget-me-not flower, was a unanimous winner by the panel of judges. By May of 1927 the flag design was unanimously adopted by the two houses of the territorial legislature.

"Thirteen-year old Benny Benson holds a handmade flag shortly after winning the flag design contest." (Photo courtesy of Alaska State Library)

Benny Benson--Alaska's FlagBenson looked to the sky, choosing the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) and the North Star for his symbols. He described his choices: "The blue field is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaska Flower. The North Star is for the future state of Alaska, the most northerly of the union. The dipper is for the Great Bear symbolizing strength." His sentiments are echoed in the state song.

Benny actually drew more than one entry. One had a dogsled and two huskies on a bright green backdrop. A second was a massive mountain rising in front of a yellow sun. And the one that won, had the number 1867 under the Big Dipper on a royal blue background.
And:Benson learned about his win in March 1927. “One day our teacher’s husband came in the room and he brought a telegram,” Benson recalled in 1971. “She just looked at it and her mouth dropped open. She was speechless. … And I darned near fell out of my seat, I guess.”

The only change that was made in his design was the removal of the “1867.” His design was favored over about 700 entries from schoolchildren around the state. Many of the other entries had variations on polar bears, gold pans, the state seal, the midnight sun, or northern lights. Until his flag was chosen, Alaskans had flown only the U.S. flag since the territory was purchased from Russia in 1867. The Territory of Alaska became a state in 1959.

Comment:  Benson's design is simple but effective. It makes for a better than average flag.

I would've made the dipper's shape a bit more robust. It looks more like the Little Dipper than the Big Dipper.

A flag based on the midnight sun or the northern lights might've been interesting. But not one based on polar bears, gold pans, or the state seal. People, leave your boring seals off your flags.

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