Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #188. First published in the St. Cloud Times, online and in print Mar. 2, 2023

Flags matter. We pledge allegiance to “the flag of the United States of America.” The meaning isn’t fixed. To the nostalgic, the flag stands for a past that is white, Christian, with men and women in traditional defined roles. To the hopeful, the flag points to the more perfect union that we still have a long way to go to reach.

We don’t pledge allegiance to the Minnesota state flag. Nonetheless, it isn’t just decoration. Because it represents our state, both to us who live here and to everybody else, its meaning matters.

After many years of frustrated efforts, the legislature is on the verge of doing something about revising the state flag. House File 274 and Senate File 386 would establish the State Emblems Redesign Commission. Here is the senate’s version: “The purpose of the commission is to develop and adopt a new design for the official state flag and the official state seal no later than January 1, 2024.”

The commission is instructed that “the designs must accurately and respectfully reflect Minnesota's shared history, resources, and diverse cultural communities. Symbols, emblems, or likenesses that represent only a single community or person, regardless of whether real or stylized, may not be included in a design.”

These guidelines are aimed directly at what’s wrong about the current state flag and seal. The seal is now the heart of the flag; the seal certainly needs to be changed, but there is no requirement that it remain on the flag.

There are two humans portrayed on the seal. One is a scantily-clad Indigenous/Minnesota American Indian on horseback, carrying a spear, the other a fully-clothed farmer with a plough, rifle, and axe. It’s facile to say that they represent harmonious neighborliness. But a poem called “The Seal of Minnesota,” by Mary Henderson Eastman, wife of the seal’s original designer, makes clear that the story told is entirely different.

“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 rocky bluff and prairie land / The white man claims them now, / The symbols of his course are here, / The rifle, axe and plough. / … Thou and thy noble race from earth / Must soon be passed away, / As echoes die upon the hills, / Or darkness follows day.” You’d have trouble finding a more overt endorsement of the twin genocidal scourges of the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny.

The makeup of the commission testifies to the state’s “shared history, resources, and diverse cultural communities.” Appointees:

  • Three, by the governor;
  • One each, by Council of Minnesotans of African Heritage, Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs, Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans;
  • One Dakota and one Ojibwe, by executive board of Indian Affairs Council;
  • Named official or designee: secretary of state; Minnesota Historical Society; Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board; Minnesota Arts Board; Explore Minnesota Tourism;
  • Non-voting members: two from House of Representatives and two from Senate, representing majority and minority caucuses.

A revised seal would certainly be better for the state flag than the current one. From a purely design perspective, though, the flag would not be well served even by a better seal. The flag is usually displayed at a distance that makes busy detail unintelligible.

More than thirty years ago an alternative flag was proposed by Lee Herold, a flag store owner in Rochester, and Rev. William Becker of Winona, both vexillologists (technical term for flag experts). Their design, known as the North Star flag (link attached), won a St. Paul Pioneer Press contest in 2001. A gold star in the top left corner symbolizes the state’s French motto, “L'étoile du Nord” — the star of the north. (A native of Texas, the Lone Star state, I prefer the North Star state!) Green and white are colors of forests, farmland, and winter. The blue evokes the sky-tinted waters called to mind by “Minnesota” in the Dakota language.

I like the North Star flag, but if the commission can come up with something better, I’ll be surprised and delighted. It’s important that our flag (and seal) be honest when, finally, all sorts of organizations and groups are prefacing their meetings by acknowledging that we are on land “the white man claims now” but that belonged to those who had been here thousands of years. Let your legislators know – the time has come!