Last March in Anchorage, I heard a choir perform "Alaska’s Flag," a piece inspired by the state flag, and it brought me to tears. It’s a familiar song to most Alaskans, and even as a recent immigrant to the state, I’d heard it before, on the radio when the governor was inaugurated. I even vaguely knew the story of the state flag’s design. But that night was my first personal experience of the song. The choir that sang it was very good, the harmony simple, the voices pure. By the last phrase, which goes, "Alaska’s flag to Alaskans dear, the simple flag of the last frontier," a lump filled my throat and I wiped my wet eyes with my thumbs. Even though I noticed that others in the theatre were teary, too, I felt a little silly, a bit amused by myself. I just moved here nine months ago, I thought. I didn’t consider myself "an Alaskan." Why was I crying?
"It’s because you’re a sucker for expressions of civic pride," said my husband, when I told him later about my unexpected upwelling of emotion. True enough -- people taking pride in their specific places have always moved me: town parades, community picnics, public radio fundraisers. Still, I thought, it seemed strange, the intense wave of feeling that song generated. The words have run through my head several times since then, and I’ve caught myself making up my own tune, singing in my head as I’m riding my bike, or doing the dishes. And I wonder: the Great Bear, the stars, the mountain lakes, the evening sky. Where does that simple song, and the simple flag, get such power?
Alaskans are proud to tell the story of the origin of their state flag. I’ve lived in three other states, and I can’t tell you much about those flags, or the stories behind them. But newcomers or visitors to Alaska will probably hear about the flag, or see it displayed somewhere, within a month of their arrival. Roughly, the story goes like this:
In 1926, Alaska was a territory, trying to position itself for eventual induction into the Union as a full-fledged state, with the associated powers of self-determination and government. Alaska’s residents and politicians were struggling with questions of identity, wanting to be recognized by the larger world as more than just “Seward’s Folly,” as a state in its own right. Territorial Governor George Parks spent time in both Washington, D.C., and around Alaska, working for the cause of statehood. Once, after a visit to Washington, D.C., where he saw the flags of the 48 states displayed outside a federal building, Governor Parks decided Alaska needed a flag to fly alongside the others. He came home and asked the Alaskan Department of the American Legion to sponsor a flag-designing contest for all the students in the territory, grades seven through 12.
Benny Benson was born in 1913, the child of an Aleut-Russian mother and a Swedish father. After his mother died when he was four, he was sent to live in a mission-run children’s home in Unalaska, where he was cared for and educated. In 1927, Benny entered the state flag contest at the urging of his seventh-grade teacher, sending in three different designs for consideration. Despite being one of the younger entrants, and misspelling a word in the written explanation of his design, Benny caught the eye of the judges, and one of Benny’s three entries was unanimously chosen the winner. His flag design was the one Alaskans now know -- a plain field of midnight blue, with the North Star and the constellation of Ursa Major depicted with gold stars. “The blue field is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaskan flower,” Benny wrote on his entry. “The North Star is for the future state of Alaska, the most northerly in the union. The Dipper is for the Great Bear symbolizing strenth (sic).” The judges were charmed by his simple design and his eloquent words. The spelling error that had bothered Benny in retrospect didn’t factor into the judges' decision.
Benny traveled to Juneau to receive an engraved gold watch at the award ceremony, where he raised Alaska’s flag for its first public display. He was also granted a $1,000 scholarship, which he later used to learn engine repair. The victory was celebrated all over the state and Benny was a folk hero. Because he was an Alaska Native, Benny’s win was all the more important. At a time when discrimination against Natives was typical and entrenched, an Alaska Native got to define the face of Alaska for both residents and those looking in. Benny Benson remains, after the turn of the century, a hero to many Alaskans – rural and urban, Natives and non-Natives, community leaders and schoolchildren. He’s an archetype, in a way – a boy who succeeded despite odds against him, a boy who used simple tools to convey deep feeling. The boy who gave Alaska a symbol, and a story.
A symbol is an image or object that stands for a larger, more abstract one. A dove stands for peace. A heart stands for love. A flag stands for a country, a group, a body.
Alaska’s flag stands for Alaska, the people, the government, but most of all the place. Symbols can be contentious when they purport to define identity, because when is the mythic identity of a large group of people ever as solid as it would seem? Alaskan identity is not simple or uniform. Individual Alaskans are no more uniformly rugged or independent or stoic than individual Nebraskans or Floridians. Even against Alaska’s geologically mythic backdrop, individuals differ. Not everyone who lives in Alaska cares about fishing, wants to summit a 7,000-meter peak, or knows how long ago the Ice Age ended. Alaskans disagree on where to put a pipeline, whether to let wolves roam, and how many lanes to carve through a landscape. And on a day in "Los Anchorage" when the clouds obscure the Chugach, Alaska seems only like the Last Frontier of the strip mall.
So if identity is as fractured here as it is anywhere else, how does the symbol of Alaska’s flag work to occasionally unite a disparate populace? I think it’s because Benny Benson’s flag and description create a narrative that is based not on an understanding of Alaskan identity, but on the observation of the details of Alaska as a place – flowers, night sky, bears, stars.
The physicality of Alaska’s various geography and the undeniable dominance of the natural world define for most Alaskans what’s different about Alaska, what’s unlike anywhere else. It may be that despite Alaskans’ many differences, the concrete details of the prominence of the physical world here tie us together. Despite our feelings about extractive industries or the inherent values of wilderness, we mostly agree that a moose is an awesome creature, that the northern lights seem like magic, that the first long days after dark winter are worthy of celebration. Benny’s flag connotes the symbols that unite Alaskans in their concept of what Alaska is, across the lines of more culturally diffuse identities. No matter how much Anchorage is like Spokane, or Alaskans are like North Carolinians, Alaska is a place at least partially defined by high mountains, wide spaces, deep darkness and long light. By “the blue of the sea, the ev’ning sky, the mountain lakes and the flow’rs nearby.”
Although I’m not “an Alaskan” by identity, and though I tend to find large holes in mythic clothes, I can see this commonality among us, the way residents are drawn together by the story of their physical place. Something about that moves me.
Young Benny Benson likely had no idea he was constructing a narrative. He was simply describing his home, the way he saw it, in the simplest terms. And this is a good reminder -- the most connecting stories we tell will be the ones about the details: the ones we tell with light in our eyes, because we can’t not tell them. These are the stories that make friends of strangers, that bring emotions to the surface, that make our places homes.