A pioneer plows a field, his rifle propped against a nearby stump, as a Native American man on horseback rides toward a setting sun against a backdrop of St. Anthony Falls and pines. A banner proclaiming "L'Etoile du Nord" waves over the scene, which is encircled in lady slippers and key dates.
There's a lot packed into the seal at the center of Minnesota's state flag, including a painful reminder for many Indigenous Minnesotans.
Legislators have long contemplated an overhaul of the flag to bring it in line with the simple, bold designs of states such as Colorado and Maryland. But 2023 appears likely to be the year they jump-start that work, creating a committee to come up with Minnesota's new emblem.
"This seal is outdated. It does not portray our state in a positive light. I think this is the year that we will get it done," said Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, who is pushing a bill to change the flag and seal, which dates to 1858.
Upper Sioux Community Tribal Chair Kevin Jensvold has pressed three governors for the change. The scene flying on blue flags across Minnesota tells the story of European settlers forcing Native Americans from their homeland, he told senators last week.
"It shows the divisiveness that shouldn't exist. It shows a gun that's going to enforce that divisiveness," Jensvold said. "If you take a poll of most people in the world and you showed them a picture of that sort, they would say that's not comforting or welcoming,"
Lee Herold, owner of Herold Flags in Rochester, has been trying to redo Minnesota's flag for an even longer time. For more than three decades, he has run into political gridlock and two big problems: "People don't understand flags, and they don't like change."
This year seems different.
"There's actual enthusiasm this year. When I started there wasn't much enthusiasm," said Herold, the past secretary of the North American Vexillological Association, which bills itself as the world's biggest organization of flag enthusiasts and scholars.
The group has five basic principles of good flag design. It should be simple and distinctive, with meaningful symbolism, two or three basic colors and no letters or seals. A memorable design can help promote Minnesota and boost business, Herold said.
Minnesota's flag doesn't even come close, in his view.
"It's identical to 20 other flags that basically slapped the seal on a blue background. … It fails basically every principle of flag design," said Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, the House sponsor of the bill. "It's offensive, frankly. And I think we can do so much better both on our seal and on our flag."
Freiberg said he's a fan of the design Herold and another Minnesotan, William Becker, have been pushing for years. Dubbed the "North Star Flag," it features a gold star and blue above a wavy horizon of green.
But he said design responsibility should lie with the proposed State Emblems Redesign Commission, which would include members ranging from legislators to the executive director of the Minnesota Historical Society to the chair of the Minnesota Arts Board and the tourism bureau executive. It would also have members representing Latino, African American, Asian American and Pacific Islander, Dakota and Ojibwe communities.
That makeup stirred debate at a recent Capitol hearing, where Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, questioned why various European groups aren't represented.
"I don't see inclusion in the board," he said.
Another GOP senator, Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa, disagreed with others' interpretations of the scene on the flag. He said he sees "two individuals co-existing," adding that they would lose historical context if they were shifted to a more modern design.
Kunesh, however, read a poem by the wife of a man who designed the seal that opens with, "Give way, give way young warrior, / Thou and thy steed give way," and goes on to say, "The rocky bluff and prairie land / The white man claims them now, / The symbols of his course are here, / The rifle, axe and plough."
She doesn't plan to expand the proposed committee. With Democrats holding full control of the Legislature and governor's office, GOP concerns are unlikely to derail the bill.
The commission would hold meetings, gather public input and recommend new flag and seal designs by January 2024. The legislation requires lawmakers' approval next year and says new designs would be implemented in May 2025, but Freiberg said legislators are considering automatically making the commission's designs official in May 2024.