What was wrong with Minnesota’s flag just the way it was? How much is the state spending redesigning a flag that didn’t need it? A whitewashing of history, an unnecessary cost, and “I don’t see anything offensive about it” were all comments we’ve heard.
Except for a vague idea of the imagery in the middle of the state’s flag, only a tiny percentage of the state’s population could have told you what was there. An even smaller number could tell about its history.
When Minnesota became a territory in 1849, there was a feud between its first territorial Gov. Alexander Ramsey, and Henry Sibley, who would represent it in Washington, D.C., on the design of a state seal. It would be used to mark official territorial documents – and eventually become part of the state’s flag.
Ramsey wanted imagery and language that “emphasized the peaceful co-existence” between Native Americans and settlers. However, Sibley, a fur trader, wanted something more fitting of his vision of what was taking place in America and Minnesota. “It was popular at the time for territorial seals to celebrate the idea of manifest destiny — that white Americans were ordained by God to settle across North America,” the North Star Flag website says.
Minnesota’s first rough draft of a state seal was drawn by Capt. Seth Eastman, the commanding officer at Fort Snelling in St. Paul, and included a farmer and a Native American riding away on a horse.
As the design took shape, Ramsey wanted a stump replaced with a tepee to represent Native Americans continuing to live in the state alongside settlers. Sibley eliminated the teepee idea and had a rifle leaning against the stump with an axe buried in its top as the farmer plowed his field nearby.
To add voice to her husband’s imagery, Mary Eastman wrote the following poem:
Give way, give way, young warrior,
Thou and thy steed give way;
Rest not, though lingers on the hills
The red sun’s parting ray.
The rock bluff and prairie land
The white man claims them now,
The symbols of his course are here,
The rifle, axe, and plough.
This is just the first stanza, with seven more following the same theme. From the fourth stanza: “The Red man’s course is onward…And Minnesota’s land / Must pass with all its untold wealth / To the white man’s grasping hand.” Her poem leaves little doubt about the intent of the imagery.
Minnesota’s territorial Legislature preferred Sibley’s design. It became the state seal, and the center emblem featured on a field of blue in the state flag in 1893. The original flag design was complicated with a white background on one side and blue on the other. It was hard to make and used little.
In 1957, the current flag of royal blue with the state seal featured in the middle was adopted.
Other problems with the state’s flag design have been acknowledged for years.
Minnesota’s flag design has consistently ranked among the worst by those who study flag design. In a 2001 study of flags from U.S. states and territories and the 10 Canadian provinces, more than 70 flags in all, Minnesota ranks sixth worst.
Vexillologists (people who study flags) generally agree on what makes an effective flag — keep it simple, use meaningful symbolism, use two or three basic colors, exclude lettering or seals, be unique, and be memorable.
Minnesota’s flag breaks all the rules, Lee Herold, who owns Herold Flags in Rochester, told MinnPost reporter Peter Callaghan. “In the Minnesota flag, there are three dates, there’s the state tree, the state flower, there’s a motto, there’s a scene with the river and St. Anthony falls, there’s a farmer, there’s an Indian. You can’t remember them all,” he said.
Last May, the Minnesota Legislature created a 13-member commission to redesign the state flag and seal, stating that: “The designs must accurately and respectfully reflect Minnesota’s shared history, resources, and diverse cultural communities. Symbols, emblems, or likenesses representing only a single community or person, regardless of whether real or stylized, may not be included in a design.”
While the deadline for the final design was Jan. 1, it was approved in mid-December.
Flag commission members included three people appointed by Gov. Tim Walz, one each appointed by the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, the Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs, and the Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans. Two people were appointed by the Indian Affairs Council, one from the Dakota community and one from the Ojibwe community.
Representatives named by the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office, one from the Minnesota Historical Society, one from the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board, one from the Minnesota Arts Board, and one from Explore Minnesota Tourism.
Four Republicans and four Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party members were also named to the committee, but they did not have voting privileges. It was required that the committee seek public input on the design.
While logo designs can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases, no design funds were provided to the committee. Instead, the state turned to the public with more than 2,000 entries submitted.
In May, the old flags will be lowered for the last time and the new ones raised.
Minnesota’s new flag features just three colors: a dark blue “K” shape representing the state outline, a lighter blue representing the state of “10,000 lakes,” and a star with eight points representing “The Star of the North.” The same star image is used in the state Capitol’s rotunda floor.
Offense is too often a matter of perspective. Those who don’t see the offense, who come from a race, sexual orientation, or social group that is not offended, have a hard time showing empathy to those who have historically felt oppression.
Once you know what is behind the design of the state’s seal and its insertion in the current flag, how much pride is there in it? Some feel shame. Is that what some Minnesotans should feel when they see our state’s flag?