State symbols ripe for change
December 1, 2023
What good is a state flag? According to flag expert Lee Herold of Rochester, Minnesota, a good flag creates a distinctive brand. Ideally, Minnesota's flag should also create unity, representing our state's values everywhere it flies. But this has not always been the case. The people of Minnesota have altered their state flag design in the past to meet changing needs. They are continuing to do so today.
Thirty-five years elapsed between Minnesota statehood (1858) and the creation of an official flag. When the organizers of the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago organized a contest for the best state flag, Minnesota's Women's Auxiliary Board of exhibition planners got to work. A six-person committee, chaired by Florence M. Greenleaf, had issued a call for a design in 1892. After reviewing more than 200 entries, they selected the flag created by artist and leatherworker Amelia Hyde Center of Minneapolis.
Center's design incorporated rich symbolism. Each face of the flag was a different color - the front side white, and the reverse blue with a gold fringe. In a nod to Minnesota's Civil War regimental flags, the white field contained the Great Seal of Minnesota. The seal depicts a white farmer plowing a field while looking over his shoulder at a spear-wielding Native American man on horseback galloping off into the sunset. Center added a scrollwork ribbon and a wreath of pink and white lady's slipper orchids around the seal.
Norwegian immigrant sisters Pauline and Thomane Fjeld stitched together a silk prototype, and their flag took home a gold medal from the Chicago World's Fair. At the Women's Auxiliary Board's urging, the Minnesota state legislature endorsed the prize-winning flag as the state's official banner on April 4, 1893.
Minnesota's first flag flew proudly, if infrequently, into the 20th century. Its two-ply design made it costly to make, while high winds played havoc with the heavy double layers. In 1955, as the state centennial loomed, the state legislature formed a bipartisan commission to review the flag's design. The commission considered revisions to make it more usable "while still preserving its basic symbolism."
The commissioners recommended a simplified design. While preserving the state seal, they eliminated the scrollwork. Gone also was the double layer of fabric. Instead, the commission proposed a simple banner of medium blue, emblazoned with an image of the state seal. The new design simplified the font of the word "Minnesota" and added a reversed copy of the seal to the back. State Rep. John Tracy Anderson proposed an alternate version that omitted the seal, but the Minnesota state legislature instead endorsed the commission's design in March 1957.
The 1957 design still flies over state buildings today, although with a seal modified by state statute in 1983. Yet efforts to reimagine Minnesota's flag have persisted. Vexillologists (flag experts) give the current banner low marks for its complexity, similarity to other state flags, and bland design. A House Government Operations committee considered an overhaul as early as 1989. In that year, a citizens group, led by Rev. William Becker of Austin and flag store owner Lee Herold of Rochester, proposed their own design, labeled the "North Star banner." Judges ranked this design first among 154 entries in a public contest sponsored by the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 2001. That same year, the North American Vexillological Association ranked Minnesota's flag among the nation's 10 worst.
The seal came first, and the requirement that it be on the flag is part of the design problem.
The creation of Minnesota Territory in 1849 spurred a need for a seal to endorse the new territorial government's documents. In the absence of an official seal, Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey first used one of his own design - a sunburst surrounded by the motto, "Liberty, Law, Religion, and Education." The Territorial Council approved a second version depicting a Native family offering a ceremonial pipe to a white visitor, symbolizing "the eternal friendship" between settlers and Native Americans. Fur trader and politician Henry M. Sibley commissioned four alternatives from Col. John J. Abert, an Army engineer and draftsman.
Sibley solicited a watercolor painting of one of Abert's options from the artist Seth Eastman. In it, a farmer pushes a plow while looking back at a Native American man on horseback riding away, lance in hand, toward a rising sun. A rifle and powderhorn rest against a nearby tree stump. The Falls of St. Anthony cascade over a cliff in the background.
Ramsey liked Eastman's painting but suggested replacing the tree stump and implements of "improvement" with a "teepee" to emphasize "Indian life." Instead, Sibley added an ax and the motto, "Quo sursum velo videre." Although somewhat garbled grammatically, the motto essentially meant, "I wish to see what is beyond." This seal design became official in 1849. The following year, poet Mary Henderson Eastman, Seth Eastman's wife, penned a poem called "The Seal of Minnesota" that spelled out the seal's implied celebration of Manifest Destiny.
The territorial seal met official needs until Minnesota joined the Union in 1858. The state constitution awarded the right to create a new seal to the newly formed legislature. Both houses approved a design by late June. Sibley, by then the state's governor, instead continued to use a modified version of the territorial seal. He flipped the tableau; the plowman now faced east, and the Native American horseman rode into the setting sun. Sibley also swapped the Latin motto for a French one: "L'Etoile du Nord," meaning, "Star of the North." Sibley's unauthorized preemption of the legislature's mandate raised some eyebrows, but his version received legislative approval in 1861.
By the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement and American Indian Movement spurred a critical reevaluation of the seal. Concluding that it placed Native Americans in "a derogatory light" and illustrated "a dark part of our history," the Minnesota Department of Human Rights called for its replacement in 1968. Such criticism led the Minnesota Secretary of State to promote a variation that replaced the Native American horseman with a mounted pioneer carrying a rifle.
The state legislature considered 10 bills to redesign the state flag between 2000 and 2023. Over time, critics focused on the white settler and the departing Native American who appear in the state seal. For many settlers and their descendants in the 19th century, the image had symbolized the supposed "inevitability" of white settlement. Later viewers pointed out that it also celebrated the forcible exile of Dakota people.
In 2022, State Sen. and Lakota descendant Mary Kunesh called for a new flag design that better represents the resilience and contributions of Native Americans in Minnesota: "We have been here, we are here, and we're still contributing to the health and wealth of Minnesota." Others, including state senator and former Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, argued to keep the modified 1957 version.
This year, the state legislature established a State Emblems Redesign Commission. The 13-member group is charged with certifying new designs for the state flag and seal by Jan. 1, 2024, and their choices will go into effect on May 11. The new designs must "accurately and respectfully reflect Minnesota's shared history, resources, and diverse cultural communities."
Dr. William Convery is the director of research at the Minnesota Historical Society. He served as the Colorado state historian from 2008 to 2015. He wrote thie piece on the MHS history site, MNopedia.