Historians uncover Benny Benson’s Unangax̂ heritage nearly a century after he designed Alaska’s flag

Benny Benson, designer of Alaska’s flag, in Seward circa 1927. A judge recently ordered the state to correct Benson’s birth certificate after historians found details about his age and cultural heritage. (Photo courtesy of Alaska State Archives, Juneau)

Historians announced Thursday that they’ve uncovered evidence that key details about the teenager who designed Alaska’s state flag have been wrong for more than a century.

Benny Benson, a Seward boarding school resident, won the state’s flag design contest in 1927. But he was a year older than previously thought, according to Michael iqyax̂ Livingston who works for the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association’s community health services.

“I’ve been working for several years with several other family tree researchers focused on Benny Benson’s cultural heritage,” Livingston said. “And in the process of that research, we found what we believe were errors in his date of birth and his mother’s maiden name.”

He led a team of nearly 20 researchers and historians, who discovered that Benson was actually 14 years old when he designed the flag, not 13 as previously thought. They also uncovered illuminating details about Benson’s cultural heritage.

The team worked for more than five years examining Benson’s family tree, deciphering and translating historical records, interviewing family members and finally compiling all of that information to be submitted to the state.

“We started digging deeper and deeper, trying to figure out where his mother was born, where his grandparents were born, on his mother’s side, and where his great grandparents were born,” Livingston said. “And then we tried to corroborate as much information from as many different sources as we could.”

After reviewing the documents on Feb. 28 — 109 years after Benson was born — Anchorage Superior Court Judge Adolf Zeman ordered the State of Alaska to issue a corrected version of Benson’s birth certificate.

Benson was also thought to be Sugpiaq, or Alutiiq, likely because he moved to Kodiak Island as an adult. But Livington said new research shows that Benson’s mother was actually born and raised in Unalaska and that Benson was Unangax̂.

“Alaska Native cultural heritage is not determined by where we move to or where we pass away or where we’re buried,” he said. “It’s not even determined by where we’re born. For example, many Alaska Natives are born in Anchorage at the Alaska Native Medical Center. That doesn’t make those people Dena’ina.”

What’s important about Benson is where his ancestors were from, he said.

Benny’s mother, Tatiana, was born and raised in Unalaska,” Livingston said. “Benny’s grandparents were from Unalaska, so Benny is a member of the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska. His great grandparents were from Amlia Island, which is really close to Atka village. So Benny is a descendant of the Native Village of Atka.”

Benny Benson was born in Chignik — a small village on the peninsula, about halfway between Unalaska and Kodiak islands — in 1912.

His mother died when he was about two years old. His father sent him from Chignik to the Jesse Lee Home in Unalaska around 1916, after their family home was destroyed in a fire. And he moved to Seward when the Methodist boarding school was relocated there. That’s where he entered and won the contest to design the Alaska state flag in 1927.

Benny Benson pictured at the Jesse Lee Home in Seward holding his design of the Alaska State flag, which features the North Star and the Big Dipper. (Photo courtesy of Alaska State Library, Historical Collections)

Benson received a $1,000 scholarship and a watch for his design, which features the North Star and the Big Dipper on a blue background. He eventually moved to Kodiak, where he worked as an airplane mechanic.

He died of a heart attack in 1972, at the age of 59.

Livingston said the corrections to Benson’s birth certificate and cultural heritage are important to properly honor his accomplishments.

“Benny was such an amazing role model for Alaska Natives,” he said. “And this was in the 1920s when racism was just blatant, in your face, against Alaska Natives. There were signs up that said, ‘No dogs allowed, no Natives allowed.’ And it was in that kind of environment that Benny won the Alaska flag contest.”

Some published information about Benson’s date of birth will have to be corrected, Livingston said. But he added that this is a great start for continuing research in preparation for the 100-year anniversary of the raising of the Alaska State flag, which is coming up in just five years.

Along with the official correction, Livingston and four other researchers have published an 81-page paper on Benson’s hidden Unangax̂ heritage.

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