Skip to main content

Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

New details have emerged about an orphan who was the youngest and only Native designer of a state flag.

A recently published paper shows Benny Benson was aged 14, not 13 as previously believed, when he won a 1927 contest for school children to design the Alaska flag. And he was Unangax̂, not Alutiiq.

The age error stemmed from a birth certificate issued when he wanted to join the military and gave a birth date that had been assigned to him at the orphanage. Russian Orthodox Church records showed his actual birthdate was a year earlier.

His race apparently was assumed to be Alutiiq because he lived and died on Alutiiq homelands. Territorial and census records show he’s Unangax̂.

Benson’s flag design has eight gold stars on a field of blue. They represent the North Star and the Big Dipper of the Ursa Major (Great Bear) constellation. Benson said the North Star is for the future of Alaska, the most northerly state in the union, and the Great Bear symbolizes strength.

In 1927 the territorial legislature unanimously adopted Benson’s flag design.

Alaska flag (courtesy State of Alaska)

A family request prompted some five years of research by a team of archivists, genealogists, and historians, said Cultural Heritage Specialist Dr. Michael iqyax̂ Livingston, Unangax̂, of the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association. They looked through church, territorial, state, and national archives records. After uncovering the details, the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association petitioned for and achieved a corrected birth certificate for Benson.

The research results illuminate “the plight of Alaska orphans who sometimes do not know their date of birth, the names of their ancestors, or their cultural heritage,” said Livingston.

He said the findings underscore the importance of questioning written history and the need for history detectives who pursue every lead to uncover the facts.

“The birth record correction is significant because it changes Alaska history and represents a larger effort towards truth, reconciliation, equity, and racial justice for North American indigenous peoples who were often given the short shrift in the 20th Century,” he said.

“... this paper spotlights the linguistic and artistic talents of the Unangax̂ people from whom so much has been taken during the past 300 years and who have given so much including the name Alaska itself and now we know the strong design of the unique Alaska flag,” Livingston said.

July 9, 2027, will be the 100-year anniversary of the raising of the Alaska flag designed by seventh-grade student Benny Benson.

State song omits mention of Benson, Alaska Natives

The lyrics of the official state song describe the design and meaning of the state flag. The state song honors prospectors that brought floods of non-Native people to Alaska but makes no mention of flag designer Benny Benson, nor of Alaska Natives, who make up 15.6 percent of the state’s population. A second verse that honors Benson and recognizes other Alaska Native has been written. Alaska legislators have failed several times to adopt a bill making it part of the official state song.

1st Verse of Alaska's Flag Song

Words by Marie Drake

Eight stars of gold on a field of blue,
Alaska's flag, may it mean to you,
The blue of the sea, the evening sky,
The mountain lakes and the flowers nearby,
The gold of the early sourdough's dreams,
The precious gold of the hills and streams,
The brilliant stars in the northern sky,
The "Bear," the "Dipper," and shining high,
The great North Star with its steady light,
O'er land and sea a beacon bright,
Alaska's flag to Alaskans dear,
The simple flag of a last frontier.

2nd Verse of Alaska's Flag Song
Words by Carol Beery Davis

A Native lad chose the Dipper's stars
For Alaska's flag that there be no bars
Among our culture. Let it be known
Through years the Native's past has grown
To share life's treasures, hand in hand,
To keep Alaska our Great-Land;
We love the northern midnight sky,
The mountains, lakes and streams nearby.
The great North Star with its steady light
Will guide all cultures, clear and bright,
With nature's flag to Alaskans dear,
The simple flag of the last frontier.

ICT logo bridge

Indian Country Today, a nonprofit and multimedia news enterprise, is a spacious channel that serves Indigenous communities with news, entertainment, and opinion. Support Indian Country Today for as little as $10.