I heard this historic woman sing yesterday.
She smiled. She didn't cry. Others listening and watching did both, understanding the power and beauty of the song.
U.S. House Democratic Party candidate Diane Benson has always been a combination of modesty, pride and assertiveness. These elements have often played out in an environment where she either was fighting for sheer survival on an Alaskan scale, or raging against injustices commonly undergone by Alaska Natives. Even now.
When she got the phone call from the United States Army in late 2005, that her paratrooper son Latseen had been injured outside of Baghdad and wasn't expected to survive, she was rehearsing her next script, a play for Out North Theater in Anchorage, about life, as Alaska Native women see it, day after day. She dropped the script and flew to her son's aid.
Diane Benson had never supported the war, always regarding it as a criminal enterprise. But her son, in his first tour and cruelly ended second tour - even as Latseen began to question the wisdom and handling of it - was an American soldier, and Diane encouraged him in all his actions. She had gotten to know Latseen's friends and their families. They had become her close and intimate friends.
Latseen survived through his courage and incredible determination. Some of his fellow soldiers have since perished. Diane has spent many hours talking to family members of those fallen heroes.
Her son's bravery, before and after his sacrifice, led her to question Alaska Representative Don Young's commitment to our wounded warriors. His answers failed Benson's test. She then questioned the Alaska Democratic Party, hoping to help them find a candidate with enough balls to oppose Young in 2006. Their answers failed Benson's test. They didn't intend to oppose Young.
As I've tried to help Diane Benson's validity gain resonance over the past 26 months, I've learned a lot:
I've learned that Alaska's Democratic Party finds her to be an all too inconvenient truth.
I've found out that when Diane Benson addresses important structural problems in important issues that no other candidate chooses to even address, she is almost always ignored.
I've been shown that at a time when Diane Benson and others want to address Alaska's 3rd Worldesque sexual abuse issues, nothing of consequence gets done. People who want to address it get fired.
I've discovered that many friends who support her in the upcoming Alaska Democratic Party primary believe in her. Unfortunately, they feel it is in their best interests to support her primary opponent's so-called "inevitability."
When Diane's son was injured, she not only gave up her main thrust in life - her fine art and its pivotal role in Alaska civil rights battles - she belayed that art's development. Not for her, not for her son, but for what she believes is our future progress.
She also, for a while gave up her family traditions and heritage more than she knew she would.
Before Latseen was hurt, Diane and her son participated in as many Tlingit cultural groups as possible. They danced and sang in ensembles and at gatherings. They learned the steps, melodies, lyrics and Holy rituals that help hold the Tlingit people together through feast and famine, joy and cruelty. After returning to Alaska in the aftermath of helping Latseen in his recovery, Diane Benson took her fear for our country, made it into a battle, something Tlingits are renowned for.
When Diane's Anchorage campaign headquarters was dedicated, an Anchorage Tlingit-Haida dance group came out and sanctified the opening. Diane watched through three songs, then began spontaneously dancing. She told me later that it was the first time she had danced since her son was wounded.
Yesterday, at a benefit for our Alaska blogging team at the Democratic National Convention, Diane, along with Writing Raven - who is on the convention team - broke into a Tlingit song. It was poignant, powerful, proud and modest. It was the first time Diane had sung in three years.
Diane also stopped publishing poetry after her son came back to our wounded country, to rebuild himself, even as the country plummets further into an abyss.
Here is one of her last poems, written about George Bush's 2nd inauguration.
It could be a song:
I Woke Up Today In A Country
That was once free
In an imperfect country
Where the colors of speech
Could fill the streets with ringing discourse
In a country that wakes a family
In Baghdad, with a morning bomb
Where dissent and reason might
Detonate discussion, excite the press,
Scorch the schools, echo in the halls of justice, so free...
The fractured bell of liberty labors
To be heard
Just a hollow chime of many
Still pushing freedom across Indian country
That once was free
Where we were told what we
Shall speak - only English - capiche
Woke up in the hope for a country
And we lined up to help
In the wake of now,
A Native soldier marches with a rainbow of soldiers
Into Baghdad, into Najaf, into Fallujah, to make
To make them free
Soldiers whose votes
Disappear in the sands
Quietly blown away
Like the reporting of numbers
That we are not told
So confused am I
That even the word, country
Looks foreign and strange to me
I woke up today in a country
That is now free
To ignore free will
A deafening ring, underscores the
New elections, like a
School bell to line up, boots marching
We will watch an inauguration for
I woke up today in a country
Do not disagree, do not disagree
I am scared for
I woke up today
images: Diane Benson in Tlingit button blanket yesterday; about to start dancing last winter; with a peace hero and a war hero