• Benny Benson's Hidden Unangax̂ Heritage

      Livingston, Michael; Murray, Martha G.; Evans, Stenner; Soloview, Fyodor G.; Smith, Carol Larsen (Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, 2022-03-10)
      Friday, July 9, 2027, will be the 100-year anniversary of the raising of the Alaska flag designed by seventh grade student Benny Benson. Top 8% of US state flag designs. Only US state flag designed by a Native American. Youngest designer. Indentured #217. Orphan. Poorest. “Inmate.” Only US state flag designer alive when the flags were flown to the Moon. As we prepare for the 100-year anniversary, what do know about Benny - as opposed to assume? We assumed that Benny was age 13 when he won the Alaska flag contest in 1927; history books said so. We assumed that his date of birth was October 12, 1913, and that his mother’s maiden name was Tatiana Schebolein. His official State of Alaska birth certificate said so. Yet, while researching Benny’s family tree, we uncovered documents which indicated otherwise. We contacted a relative who said Benny’s birth certificate is incorrect. We contacted the State of Alaska’s Health Analytics and Vital Records Section (HAVRS) who contacted the Alaska State Museums. A panel of Alaska history experts reviewed our documents and agreed that Benny’s birthdate should be corrected. HAVRS said we needed a court order. We petitioned the Alaska Superior Court, and on February 28, 2022, Alaska Superior Court Judge Adolf Zeman issued a court order (containing Unangam Tunuu – Aleut language) to correct Benny Benson’s birth records. Benny was actually born on September 12, 1912 – over 13 months earlier than previously reported. Benny’s mother’s maiden name was not Tatiana Schebolein; it was Tatiana Ioannovna Dediukhina. We also assumed that Benny was Alutiiq. Many sources said so, and good sources too: Museums, libraries, Alaska Native organizations, and Alaska historical societies. In 1950, when Benny was age 38, he moved to Kodiak. Sadly, in 1972, at age 59, Benny passed away and is buried in Kodiak. Kodiak is Alutiiq territory, and this may explain why Benny is often identified as Alutiiq. Yet Alaska Native ancestry is not defined solely upon where we move to later in life or the geographical location where we are born or are buried. Alaska Native ancestry is defined by where our ancestors are born and lived. When one of our genealogy colleagues casually mentioned finding records that indicated Benny’s mother Tatiana was born in Unangax̂ territory, this launched a lengthy-, in-depth genealogical investigation of his family tree. With help from many others, we found birth and marriage records which demonstrate that Benny’s mother Tatiana and his grandparents were born in Unalaska – the heart of Unangax̂ territory. Thus, Benny was a member of the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska – the Qawax̂ or Sea Lion Tribe. His great grandparents were from Amlia Village; Benny was a descendant of the Native Village of Atka. Despite others claiming without evidence that Benny Benson was Alutiiq, the documents found during this research show that Benny was Unangax̂. This research is significant on several fronts. First, it spotlights Benny Benson who – despite all odds – won a contest by reaching for the stars. Over 95 years after he won the Alaska flag contest, Benny is still in the news in a heartwarming story during the depth of a gloomy global pandemic and conflict in Ukraine. Like most family tree stories, there are sad (even heart-wrenching) times, but overall, Benny’s story is uplifting. This paper illuminates the plight of Alaska orphans who sometimes do not know their date of birth, the names of their ancestors, or their cultural heritage. Orphans need good families and thorough family tree research. This paper also underscores the importance of questioning written history and the need for history detectives keen on forensically investigating Alaska family trees with patient persistence while seeking the truth – whatever the truth may be. The birth record correction is significant because it changes Alaska history and represents a larger effort towards truth, reconciliation, equity, and racial justice for North American indigenous peoples who were often given the short shrift in the 20th Century. The birth record correction is a victory for archivists, Russian Orthodox family record keepers, and genealogists who love a complex mystery that twists and turns over time. This paper spotlights the need for careful research before centenary celebrations. Finally, this paper spotlights the linguistic and artistic talents of the Unangax̂ people from whom so much has been taken during the past 300 years and who have given so much including the name Alaska itself and now we know the strong design of the unique Alaska flag.