Diane Benson speaks to cap Women’s History Month

By Jeremia Schrock
Sun Star Contributor

This March has seen luncheons and lectures dedicated to “writing women back into history”, the theme for this year’s National Women’s History Month. Last Tuesday evening at Schaible Auditorium, Diane Benson, Alaskan poet, playwright and political activist, delivered the keynote address to this year’s theme.

Having researched, written, and performed a play based around the life of Alaskan native Elizabeth Peratrovich, many individuals on campus felt that Benson would be the perfect choice to close the month’s celebration. Kayt Sunwood, manager of the Women’s Center, said that there was no one better qualified to speak on a topic like writing women back into history than someone like Benson, who is actively engaged in doing just that.

Sunwood’s introduction of Benson, which included a lengthy list of Benson’s achievements, degrees and talents, was interrupted by the playwright, who seemed uncomfortable at having her curriculum vitae read aloud in public. Benson began her speech timidly, telling audience members at one point that they were all guinea pigs; since this was the first time she had ever presented a lecture of such a personal nature. Her trepidation soon faded, however, as she launched herself into an impassioned performance of one of the most important scenes in her play: Elizabeth Peratrovich’s defense of the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945.
During her 80-minute lecture, Benson used the story of Elizabeth Peratrovich to explore her own darkly eventful past. Benson spoke candidly about her use of drugs and alcohol as a teenager; of the times she found herself in jail for petty crimes; about her time as the leader of a Ketchikan street gang and her experiences as a truck driver on the Dalton Highway. She told the audience about the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse she sustained during her time in the foster care system (at one point, being labeled “Pocahontas” by her elementary school principal); and the events of one particular night she was raped and left for dead along the side of Goldstream Road.

Benson said her life had always been one that had been lived between two cultures. The daughter of a Norwegian immigrant father and a Tlingit mother, for many years Benson felt as though she had no culture to call her own. She spoke fondly of her grandfather, who had taught her the Tlingit language every morning over breakfast, and of Roy Peratrovich (the husband of Elizabeth) whom she met as a youth, and who had told her flatly, “Stay in school.”

The take-home message that Benson said she wanted to leave with Tuesday’s audience was this:
No one can ever take away from you who you are, even if you have to struggle to understand just who that person is. After years of searching, Benson said she finally knows who she is: “I’m native and no one can make me not native.”

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