July 9 marked the 91st anniversary of the adoption of the Alaska flag. Featuring Ursa Major, or the big dipper, and Polaris, or North Star, it stands apart as an iconic, minimalist symbol of the state as a whole. In its beautiful simplicity, it represents Alaska in a visual way that has been embraced by many.
What many people don’t know is the story of the state flag.
In 1927, American Legion held a contest for school children to design a flag for the Alaska Territory. Up until that point, the only representative flag was that of the Russian federation. The Alaska State Library has in its collection 37 of the 145 entries digitized and available online. Some feature symbols of the mining industry, many feature polar bears. But one flag stands out in its universal representation of the state as a whole: Benny Benson’s winning design.
Benny Benson’s own heartrending story makes his entry all the more powerful. An Alaska Native orphan living at the Jessie Lee Mission Home in Seward, Benson was inspired by the sight of the North Star outside his window each night. In his own words on his design submission, Benson wrote that “the blue field is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaska flower. The North Star is for the future of the state of Alaska, the most northerly in the Union. The dipper is for the Great Bear – symbolizing strength”.
On May 2, 1927, the Legislature of the Territory of Alaska adopted Benson’s winning design as the official state flag of Alaska. Benson also received an engraved pocket watch with the flag design, and a $1,000 scholarship.
The flag flew for the first time on July 9, 1927, as the Seward Gateway reports:
In 1935, the flag design inspired Marie Drake to pen what later became Alaska’s Flag, adopted as the official state song in 1959, and singers often perform it alongside the Star Spangled Banner at events throughout Alaska. Efforts to include an official second verse, with lyrics written by Carol Beery Davis in 1987 about Alaska Native people- and Benson himself- have as of yet not been adopted by the state legislature, yet the second verse is often sung to accompany the first.
Although Benson shied away from the press in the years since winning the flag design contest, he appeared in a series of photo opportunities once Alaska became a state in 1959- and his flag was the official state flag. By this time, Benson worked as an airplane mechanic and was largely out of the public eye. He died in 1972 at age 58, but is still remembered for his flag design: a large memorial and plaque stands today in Seward, where the flag first flew.