The current interest in the removal of the Confederate battle flag from public displays and store shelves provides an excellent opportunity to examine what the Minnesota state flag represents. The images on the flag are interpreted by state documents as innocuous symbols of the state’s history. A critical examination of what the flag is saying, however, should make Minnesotans reconsider what their state flag projects about their state.
The state flag of Minnesota is often something that is taken for granted. Thousands of people see the flag flying without giving it a second thought. First unfurled in 1893 (a date found on the flag), it has the state seal featured prominently in its center. The seal was based on a painting by Seth Eastman and was promoted by Gov. Henry Sibley; it did engender criticism when first used in 1858, but was not changed.
The “great symbolism” of the figures on the seal, as described by the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State, include an American “Indian on horseback … riding due south and [representing] the Indian heritage of Minnesota. The Indian’s horse and spear and pioneer’s ax, rifle, and plow represent tools that were used for hunting and labor” (Minnesota Legislative Manual).
A close examination shows the central figure to be a white pioneer dressed in work clothes, wearing a wide-brim hat and pushing a plow. He is an iconic image of a hardworking, rugged individualist who works alone to chop the trees, plow the land and protect his home. He is looking over his shoulder at the Indian, who is riding a horse and holding a spear.
The contrast in the images of the figures is interesting: The image of the pioneer, a peaceful man who has laid down his gun and is plowing his field, is juxtaposed with the image of the Indian, who may still want to fight (his spear is at the ready) but who seems to be riding away. The pioneer/farmer is using a plow, a symbol of civilization. The white man is depicted as a “doer” who is entitled to the land, trees and water, empowered by the concept of Manifest Destiny. The Indian is the vacating tenant. A peaceful transition is suggested, but this ignores the tense and problematic history of conflict between European settlers and Indians, such as the complicated history of treaties and the Dakota War of 1862. More problematic, however, is the depiction of a racist, stereotyped Indian, who wears only a loin cloth and a feather.
The Minnesota state flag has engendered criticism — particularly in the past 50 years, as outlined on William Becker’s and Lee Herold’s website (see http://mnflag.tripod.com): In the civil-rights era of the 1960s, the rider on the horse was changed to a white rider for the state seal, but this was not used for the flag. The Minnesota Board of Human Rights pushed for changing the seal in 1968, but this did not go far; the two major newspapers in the state gave the proposal little regard (the St. Paul Pioneer Press decried the cost of any such change, while the Minneapolis Star said the Minnesota Board of Human Rights was “on the warpath” about the seal). An entirely new flag was proposed in 1989 by Becker and Herold, with a star and a simple white, blue and green wave design, but it has not gained sufficient support.
The history of Minnesota includes many different stories, and the state flag should represent those many voices or — at the very least — not be offensive to those who live there. There have been voices of protests for this flag ever since the seal was first used. It is time that the state flag is revised, perhaps through a statewide design contest. While the current flag may represent a certain view and vision of the past, it does not reflect the values and sensibilities of Minnesotans today.
Judith Harrington, of New Richmond, Wis., is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.