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Let’s talk about our racist and ugly state flag

The seal itself, a complex messy affair, dates back to 1858, when it was created by Alexander Ramsey, Henry Sibley and Seth Eastman.

Then presidential candidate Joe Biden is shown speaking with union carpenters in front of Minnesota state flag during a 2020 campaign event in Hermantown.
Then presidential candidate Joe Biden is shown speaking with union carpenters in front of the Minnesota state flag during a 2020 campaign event in Hermantown.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

There’s not much you can say to defend the Minnesota state flag.

I guess it’s historically honest, reflecting a deep well of racism that is inseparable from our state history. But there are two main reasons for retiring the flag, and removing it as the preeminent symbol of our state.

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By far the most important is the flag’s relationship to Minnesota’s settler colonial history. The seal itself, a complex messy affair, dates to 1858 when it was created by Alexander Ramsey, Henry Sibley and Seth Eastman. That was seven years after the worst of the U.S. treaties with the Dakota (which made people like Sibley quite rich), and during a period that marked a low point of indigenous dispossession. The theft of money and food from Dakota people, then shunted to a tiny strip of land on the north side of the Minnesota River, was rampant.

Despite the official symbolism of the seal explained by the Secretary of State, the original meaning of the seal was meant to celebrate this colonial relationship. The designer’s wife, Mary Eastman, even penned a short poem to explain what was on the seal:

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

 Eastman’s rhyme has the benefit of honestly reflecting the dominant feelings of white Minnesotans at the time, most of whom wanted to eradicate Native Americans from their homeland. As such, the seal and flag represent sentiments that led directly to the genocide of Dakota people, and is one that Minnesotans should not celebrate in any way.

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So there’s that.

For the rest of this column, though, I’ll focus on the less important problem with the Minnesota state flag: it’s a terrible flag design, bad in nearly every way that a flag can be.

I’ve been interested in flag design, also known as vexillology, ever since Andy Sturdevant wrote about St. Paul’s many flags in his MinnPost column, “The Stroll.” Vexillology has seen something of a renaissance in the intervening years, with designers and civic boosters increasingly calling attention to the government symbols, and prompting cities like Duluth to redesign their flags.

“You can’t go anywhere in town without seeing the Chicago flag being incorporated into branding, everything from soccer jerseys to grocery stores” said Rob Spence, the most flag-obsessed person I know.

Minnesota state flag
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Seeing the Minnesota state flag flying always gives me pause: How many people really look at what’s depicted there?
After years of critiquing flags in Minnesota, Spence recently moved from St. Paul to Chicago – the U.S. city widely recognized as having the best flag – where he works in the soccer uniform business. Like most vexillologists, he has a dim view of the current Minnesota state flag.

As he explains it, Spence adheres to the basic principles of the North American Vexillological Association. They’re short, so I’ll just put them here:

Keep it simple, so simple that a child can draw it from memory. Use meaningful symbolism: images, colors, or patterns should relate to something. Use two or three basic colors, no more. No lettering or seals, which are ruined if they’re displayed in reverse. Be distinctive.

Note that the Minnesota state flag breaks nearly every one of these rules. Minnesota’s flag is so bad, in fact, that it consistently ranks as one of the bottom state flags in the nation, offering a combination of offensiveness and inelegance that’s hard to top.

There’s a palpable contrast with states with great flags. Both Spence and I agree that Colorado has the best state flag – you’ll find it on everything from license plates to airport collectibles – and we both also rate California quite highly, despite its unorthodox design. For others states, Spence is fond of Texas and Arizona, whereas Maryland and Ohio are my other favorites.

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When Minnesota leaders decide to move past our terrible status quo symbols, what comes next? There’s already one candidate out there that you might have seen flying at the Minnesota United soccer matches: the North Star Flag, a symbol created by a pair of designers from southern Minnesota.

Unfortunately, Spence is not a fan.

“The North Star flag is better than what we currently have, but it’s such a milquetoast boring design,” Spence told me. “For example, they’re just using the default star. If you’re going to do something new, you need to make it unique, and come up with something a little more interesting.”

Legislation put forward by Rep. Mike Freiberg would start a process to do just that. Currently in the House Ways and Means committee, the legislation would create a State Emblems Commission to “develop and adopt a new design for the official state seal and a new design for the official state flag.” The commission would have 13 members from state’s tribes and other groups.

If the commission happens, it’ll be long overdue. Spence hopes that the group will at least some input from designers and branding experts.

“I think it would be a mistake if the state doesn’t [include] a panel of graphic designers, or people who have some education about flag design,” said Spence. “If they’re going to do it, do it right.”

At the very least, any potential commission can’t make it worse. Flying the current Minnesota state flag is the functional equivalent of a stadium crowd doing the tomahawk chop. Instead, someday soon, Minnesota could have a flag that everyone in the state can be proud to see flying over center field or at the top of the state capitol.