Diane E. Benson
Diane E. Benson
Diane E. Benson (Tlingit) was one of the original female tractor-trailer truck drivers on the remote and hazardous Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Since then, she has pursued a multidimensional life that has included work as a playwright, writer, speaker, politician and actress. In the film, For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska, Benson plays the role of Tlingit activist Elizabeth Peratrovich, one of the most influential leaders of the Alaska civil rights movement.
For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska, tells the story of Alaska Natives and the injustice they experienced at the hands of the United States. Beginning in 1867, the year the United States of America purchased the Alaska Territory, Indigenous Alaskans lost much of their land, resources and freedoms as a result of the new American presence. Alaska Natives were unable to defend themselves because of their exemption from the laws and protections supposedly offered to all individuals residing on American land, as outlined in the Bill of Rights. Not willing to crumble under the weight of racism, segregation and discrimination, Alaska Natives achieved social change by confronting the U.S. government. Two decades before the 1960s civil rights era, Native Americans in Alaska fought for their rights -- and they won!
Blending documentary and drama, For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska captures the emotional weight of the movement using reenactments of key historical events, culminating with Mrs. Peratrovich’s articulate and impassioned testimony before the Alaska Territorial Senate. “It’s a history that is inspiring because it really demonstrates that one person can make a difference,” says Benson.
Benson first played the role of Mrs. Peratrovich in a one person dramatization she wrote prior to filming For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska. “I wrote a play in an attempt to get her story told,” Benson says. She has performed her one-woman dramatization as Mrs. Peratrovich at locations around Alaska, including the Alaska Native Heritage Center. She has also performed in Massachusetts, Hawaii and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. Benson’s performance piece was used in the film to reenact Mrs. Peratrovich’s testimony to the Territorial Senate.
To the wonderment of Mrs. Peratrovich’s decedents, Benson shares a stunning resemblance to Peratrovich that adds a sense of unexpected authenticity to the dramatization. “It was kind of eerie to be able to present someone that the family would respond to in such a way that they were overcome,” says Benson.
Learning about Mrs. Peratrovich and playing her has been a life-changing experience for Benson. “Learning about her, talking with people who knew her, getting to know the family... increased my own pride and the achievements of my own people,” Benson says. “It has changed the way I approach things.”
Benson grew up within the rough and sometimes violent atmosphere of government-controlled children’s homes. “As a young person, I never imagined that I would make it to adulthood,” she says. In 1975, working as one of the first women tractor-trailer truck drivers on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, Benson once again faced danger and violence amidst the hazardous working conditions and overtly masculine environment. “I had to defend other people and myself,” she says.
Benson’s strong sense of social justice has played a key role in all of her work over the years. Just like Mrs. Peratrovich, Benson served as president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood. She has also been involved in Alaska politics. In 2010, she was the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of Alaska. “I like being involved with things that can do something meaningful, and positive [for people’s lives],” she says. Benson recently became the public relations director for Energia Cura, an energy company developing a natural gas pipeline she believes will have a positive impact on energy problems faced by Alaskans.
“I have lived my life, and have continue to live my life driven by a strong sense of justice,” Benson says. “I think that’s exactly what I have in common with Elizabeth.”
Interviews were conducted and Edited By Ben Kreimer.
Written by Ben Kreimer.