Eighty-six years ago today, the Alaska Legislature adopted the official flag of the Territory of Alaska. The flag, designed by 13-year-old John Ben “Benny” Benson, an Aleut originally from Chignik, was the winner in the Alaska Department of the American Legion’s 1926 contest for 7th-12th graders. In his original entry, Benny wrote:
“The blue field is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaskan flower. The North Star is for the future state of Alaska, the most northerly in the union. The Dipper is for the Great Bear – symbolizing strength.”
The Territorial Legislature unanimously adopted Benson’s flag on May 2, 1927, and passed an act proclaiming it the official flag of the territory. In part, the act stated:
“The design of the official flag is eight gold stars in a field of blue, so selected for its simplicity, its originality and its symbolism. . . . The stars, seven of which form the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear, the most conspicuous constellation the Northern sky, contains the stars which form the ‘Dipper,’ including ‘pointers‘ which point toward the eighth star in the flag, Polaris, the North Star, the ever constant star for the mariner, the explorer, hunter, trapper, prospector, woodsman, and the surveyor. For Alaska the Northernmost star in the galaxy of stars and which at some future time will take its place as the Forty-ninth star on our National Emblem.”
This simple flag inspired Marie Drake, a secretary to the Commissioner of Education, to write the stirring poem “Alaska’s Flag” in 1935. Soon after, in 1938, Elinor Dusenbury, the wife of the Commanding Officer of the Chilkoot Barracks at Haines from 1933-1936, composed the familiar song to Drake’s words. She said, “I wrote the music for Marie’s beautiful poetry from pure unadulterated homesickness for Alaska! I shed more tears on the boat going out than I ever have before or since.”
In 1955, when the Alaska Constitutional Convention gathered, Benny Benson was invited as a guest of honor. When he was introduced, he was greeted by a standing ovation. Benson later said, “The noise was so loud I couldn’t hear a thing; people whistled and hollered and stamped.” The convention fittingly ended with the crowd singing the “Alaska’s Flag” song.
When Alaska became a state, the flag became the state flag, and the song became the state song.
Today, the work of these three people; the simple, clean and meaningful design of a remarkable teenage boy, the emotional words of a poet, and the score inspired by homesickness that even today, brings tears to some Alaskans’ eyes when they hear it; are inseparable from Alaska. The flag, poem, and song ARE Alaska, and the stories of the creative trio who made it happen are still inspiring to this day.