ANADARKO, Okla. - Overcoming adversity and intimidation is nothing new for Alaska native and Tlingit tribal member Diane Benson, a candidate on the Democrat ticket for Alaska's at-large congressional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In fact, some would say that has been a major theme throughout her entire life.
Benson was 19 years old when she began driving tractor trailers on the Alaska Pipeline in 1975, being not only the lone woman truck driver in some cases, but also the only woman on a job site. Benson told Indian Country Today that the first time she ever drove a truck, she had an audience of 250 men on pipeline platforms.
''They all stopped to watch me turn the truck around. That's pretty intimidating,'' Benson said. ''When I was on one crew, they saved me literally inches between trucks to park my truck, and they all sat on the bus and watched, waiting to see if I would mess up. I pulled it forward. ... I did it in one move and was literally inches mirror-to-mirror. After that, I got on the bus and it was pretty quiet. One of the guys said, 'Make room for the trucker.'''
However, her work as a groundbreaking teamster doesn't even scratch the surface of what Benson has accomplished. With her family originally from the Sitka, Alaska, area, Benson grew up in logging camps, boarding schools, foster homes and even on boat houses. After serving as an intern for then-U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel, she gained varied positions with organizations such as the Alaska Federation of Nations and United Tribes of Alaska, did paralegal work with Alaska Legal Services, ran the Northern Stars Talent Agency to nurture and promote Alaska's creative talent, and organized the 1996 Arctic Winter Games. Additionally, Benson is a playwright, dog musher, American Indian and women's advocate, actor and journalist, and the holder of a master's degree in creative writing.
Benson was introduced to the idea of running for public office in 2002, when she agreed to be on the Green Party ticket as a candidate for lieutenant governor along with another Alaska Native woman, Erica ''Desa'' Jacobsson. Eventually, Jacobsson left the ticket, leaving Benson as the Green Party candidate for governor.
Benson's life changed forever on Nov. 13, 2005, when her son, Spc. Latseen Benson of the 101st Airborne, was severely injured in Iraq, losing both of his legs.
After going to Germany to be with her son, she returned with him and his wife to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. While there, she contacted Alaska's elected officials to visit her son. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, paid her son a visit, but what upset Benson the most was when Alaska's at-large representative, Don Young, R-Alaska, did not visit after her repeated contacts to his office and conversations with sympathetic staff members.
It was this lack of attention from Young that made Benson rejoin the Democratic Party and run against him in the 2006 general election, where she received an unexpected 40 percent of the vote statewide, and only spent approximately $201,000. Young - who has since been linked to the Jack Abramoff lobbyist scandal - spent $2 million to retain the seat he has held since 1973.
''What really spurred me on was the health care situation in this country, and the fact that we're still dealing with the same problems here in Alaska that we have been regardless of how much money and resources we have,'' Benson said. ''We still can't seem to get plumbing in all of the communities. We still have people that are going without heat. We still have people starving in this state. We still have elders whose needs are not fully met - we're not taking care of them. It's stunning to me, and it outrages me.''
In addition to her stance against the war in Iraq, concern for health care, energy independence and need for government accountability, Benson is also concerned about how America's war on drugs has not addressed the human problems in all communities.
''I feel an urgency around methamphetamine issues,'' she said. ''I think the war on drugs has turned more into a war on people, and we have got to address the problems of incarceration and the lack of attention to drug and alcohol addiction - that's across the board. I don't care if you're Native or non-Native, that's an issue in America.''
Benson has witnessed firsthand how meth has affected Native communities in Alaska, when Native elders have no linguistic concept for the destructive nature of meth.
''It's in our villages,'' she said. ''When you hear elders just in tears, that have grown up with their own language, trying to say these words - that's heartbreaking - trying to say the word 'methamphetamine,' and trying to understand what has happened to their own young people. Literally heartbreaking.
''They're seeing things happen to a generation that they hoped so much better for. Now it's like another onslaught of misery to see the drug addiction escalate in rural communities. It's in the cities real bad here. It's almost like as a society as a whole, we can't seem to keep up with it. We will pay a price for this. We already see it in schools with the impact on children.''
Living in Alaska, Benson said she has also seen the beginning effects of global warming on Native communities, where subsistence hunting has to adjust to deal with changing animal behavior and villages prepare for moves against sea erosion.
With the 2008 elections approaching, Benson is once again preparing to meet all challengers. She has already received endorsements from both Gravel and former Georgia senator and veteran advocate Max Cleland.
''People see that there's a wounded moose in their midst,'' Benson said about Young. ''I remind them it's like a pack of wolves circling the moose. It took the first wolf to strike to start bringing it down. The fact is, I'm the one who was out there when it didn't look possible. I frankly think that's the kind of representation people need.''