Looking back at the birth of the state flag

State museum's new exhibit shows what the other possibilities were for the Alaska flag

Posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2002

Seventy-five years ago this month, schoolchildren across the territory of Alaska took up their crayons, pens and paints and went to work on an icon.

It was a dark time for Alaska and Gov. George Parks challenged the children to create a symbol for the territory, a rallying point for self-government and for eventual statehood.

"Eight Stars of Gold: The Story of Alaska's Flag" commemorates the 75th anniversary of Alaska's flag. The exhibit at the Alaska State Museum opens Thursday with a reception from 4:30 to 7 p.m.

"The centerpiece of the exhibit is the original designs from the kids," said guest curator India Spartz.

Benny Benson's original artwork for his winning design will be displayed, along with 35 other entries. Natalia Kashevaroff of Juneau, Robert DeArmond of Sitka, Elizabeth Sheldon of Haines and Walter Savikko of Douglas were among the finalists who submitted designs.

Almost 150 finalists were judged in Juneau in March 1927, and Benson's design was unanimously selected. The others have been archived in the state library. The names of the young artists were unknown until the state museum pursued this exhibit.

"Tape was put over the names so when the judges were looking at the designs they would not be swayed by the names," Spartz said.

Last year Spartz and museum conservator Scott Carroll removed the tape for the first time in 74 years. Spartz was surprised to see many of the families are still in Alaska.

"These are kids that are truly from pioneer families," she said. "It was nice to see kids from all over the territory. It was a real great cross section."

The exhibit features photographs and a variety of memorabilia, including an Alaska flag carried to the moon by Apollo 17 - and returned with a moon rock. Benson submitted three entries. The exhibit will include all his designs and the engraved gold watch he received as an award, as well as a flag he sewed by hand when he was 13.

Benson learned to sew in the Jesse Lee School, a mission school and orphanage in Seward where he grew up. It was a skill that proved valuable when he was a single father raising two daughters in Kodiak in the 1950s.

In the early 1960s Benson became the first Alaska Native to be admitted to the Elk's Club in Alaska. Elk's Lodges in the southern United States argued against his initiation because of his race, but he was admitted to the Kodiak Lodge, paving the way for other Natives to join the organization.

Benson's daughter, Charlotte Benson Irvin, and his granddaughter Sherry Irvin are coming to Juneau from Oak Harbor, Wash., to attend Thursday's museum reception.

Spartz wrote the catalog that accompanies the exhibit. Filled with pictures and historical vignettes, the 24page book does more than retell the familiar story of Benny Benson and his winning design. It offers the context of early 20th century Alaska, when a depression gripped the territory and Alaskans were frustrated with the distant federal government.

"Outside interests were coming in and taking money and resources out of Alaska, and nothing came back. It was essentially colonial status and it was devastating Alaska," Spartz said.

The flag came at a turning point for the territory.

"This was a morale booster," said Spartz. "It was necessary, and really helped to provide people with a sense of vision to the future."

"Eight Stars of Gold: The Story of Alaska's Flag" will travel around the state following the Juneau show. The museum also has prepared an online and CD-ROM version of the exhibit. Bruce Kato of the state museum said there has been a real interest in getting Alaska history incorporated into school curriculum, and this project provides that.

"We're using this as a model and we'd like to develop these kind of online resources for teachers," Kato said. The site can be accessed through the museum's Web site at www.museums.state.ak.us.

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