Saturday, January 3, 2009

Flags: State of Alaska

"Alaska’s flag–to Alaskans dear,
The simple flag of a last frontier."

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Alaska's admission to the Union today, let's have a look at its fine flag. The "Eight Stars" exhibit (PDF) of the Alaska State Museum will tell you everything you need to know, but here's an executive summary: The flag was designed for the Territory of Alaska in 1927 by a 13-year-old boy named Benny Benson. His entry was the unanimous winner of a territory-wide competition among schoolchildren in grades 7-12. The eight stars represent the constellation Ursa Major (a.k.a. "The Great Bear" or "The Big Dipper") and the North Star. The blue background represents the northern sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaskan flower.

Details: Historically, Alaska struggled to find its place in the United States. After the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, Alaska was designated as a military district. It wasn't until 1912 that Alaska became a United States territory with an elected legislature. Even then, the United States Congress had the right to override the actions of the territorial legislature. Due in part to the federal government's ignoring of Alaska, the territory fell into an economic depression in the 1920s while the rest of the country was relatively prosperous (though we all know how that ended).

During a 1926 visit to Washington, DC, territorial Governor George A. Parks visited the Post Office building, where the Postmaster General pointed out that Alaska was not represented in the display of flags in the building's rotunda because the territory did not have a flag. In response, Parks arranged for the American Legion to organize a flag design contest for the territory's schoolchildren. 142 entries were submitted, and Benny Benson's elegant design was selected unanimously; fortunately for Benny, his design was not disqualified due to his misspelling of the word "strength" in the narrative submitted with the design, as he had feared it would be. The flag later inspired the poem "Alaska's Flag" which later was set to music to become the official state song.

Alaska's flag is one of my favorites because of the elegant simplicity and powerful symbolism of the design as well as the compelling story of its origins. The flag is beloved by citizens and played a role in the Territory's quest for statehood, which was finally realized with President Eisenhower's signature on January 3, 1959. However, the sweetness of Alaska's state symbols doesn't end there. The state's Office of Economic Development site describes them all; I will comment on a few below.

The official state bird is the willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus), a member of the grouse family. Legend has it that the founders of the town of Chicken, Alaska wished to name the town after the large numbers of ptarmigan observed in the area. However, they couldn't agree on how to spell it, so they named it "Chicken" to avoid embarrassment.

Alaska is so big it has to have two official state mammals. The state land mammals is the moose (Alces alces). I'll save my moose-related comments for another post, but my own encounters with Alaskan moose were pretty fantastic. The state marine mammal is the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus). Apparently the walrus lobby wasn't very strong in Juneau. The bowhead makes lots of interesting noises, though.

Speaking of Juneau, Alaska is the only state in the Union without some kind of official-looking state capitol building. The state legislature chambers and the governor's office are in the former Federal and Territorial Building, an Art Deco office building completed in 1931.

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