Celebrating Alaska's superlative flag designer
This past Sept. 25 would be Benny Benson's 104th birthday, a timely occasion to announce newly confirmed superlatives surrounding his exceptional flag design among the 50 U.S. state flags.
Benson was the only Native American U.S. state flag designer, the youngest U.S. state flag designer, and the only orphan U.S. state flag designer. He was also in the top 8 percent of U.S. state flag designers. Superlative means exceptional, outstanding and unmatched. Benson was born in 1913 in the tiny village of Chignik on the Alaska Peninsula. His name on his birth certificate is John Ben Benson, Jr., but he affectionately came to be known as Benny.
On Oct. 1, 1926, the American Legion and the Territory of Alaska announced a contest to design the Alaska flag with an imminent deadline of March 1, at a time when mail was slow — often transported by sailing ship. As a poor seventh-grade Native orphan, Benson was intimidated by wealthier non-Native high school seniors. In the 1920s in Alaska, there were strong sentiments against Natives. On his entry, someone wrote, "inmate at Jesse Lee." Imagine entering a contest with 700 youth statewide and being classified as an inmate — when you're not. Benson's competitors submitted more elaborate designs without spelling errors. He submitted three short sentences with his drawing, leaving out the "g" out of the word "strength." In the preliminary contest in Seward, Benny only won $1 for third place. He considered withdrawing from the flag contest.
After agonizing months (a lifetime for a 13-year-old Alaska Native orphan), the winner was announced: Benny Benson. His teacher in Seward was so shocked that she had to have her husband read the telegram. For the next 45 years, Benson basked in the glow of his handsome flag. In Alaska's largest city, a major boulevard and school are named after him. In 1972, he passed away and was buried in Kodiak where the airport bears his name. His gravesite at the Kodiak Cemetery is well tended.
For years, I researched U.S. state flag designers, and could locate none younger than Benson. Nor could I locate any Native American or orphan U.S. state flag designers. The North American Vexillogical Association (NAVA) has been researching flags since 1967 (over 50 years). This summer, I contacted NAVA to see if they knew of any U.S. state flag designers younger than Benson or of Native American descent. They did not. In a survey, NAVA asked 400 people to rate 72 flags from worse to best. When the results of the NAVA flag survey were announced, Alaska's flag was ranked in the top 10 (fifth place) of 72 flags. If only U.S. state flags were included (taking out Canadian and U.S. territory flags), Benson's flag was rated fourth of 50. That's the top 8 percent. Not too shabby for a 13-year-old Native American orphan whose spelling was less than perfect. Benson remains a fine role model for young Alaskans trying to work up their courage to enter contests despite the odds.
Michael Livingston is Alaska Native, raised in Cold Bay on the Alaska Peninsula, and retired after 27 years in police work. His father ran the power plant in Chignik Bay. Livingston works as the instructional design supervisor at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, and would like to thank the Alaska State Library and NAVA for their assistance.