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The origins of Minnesota’s state seal

The Great Seal of Minnesota was created by men who tied their fortunes to the progress (as they defined it) and settlement of the state, often at the expense of Native Americans.

Brass seal of Minnesota, created in 1858.
Brass seal of Minnesota, created in 1858.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Whether pressed into wax, printed, or embossed onto paper, seals represent the legal authority of government bodies.

The creation of Minnesota Territory in 1849, therefore, spurred a need for a seal to endorse the new territorial government’s documents. In the absence of an official seal, Territorial Gov. 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, who rides away, lance in hand, towards a rising sun. A rifle and powder horn rest against a nearby tree stump. The Falls of St. Anthony (Owamniyomni) 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 of that year. 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.

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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.

Artistic variations, along with ongoing calls to replace the state seal by the Minnesota Intertribal Council and others, led to legislation affirming the seal’s design in the 1980s. State Sen. Patricia Kronebusch introduced a bill formalizing the seal’s appearance. The description adhered closely to the original but contained new language intended to counter accusations that the seal was anti-Native American. The bill, which passed into law, decreed that the Native horseback rider faced “due south” instead of west, and specified that he “represents the great Indian heritage of Minnesota.” Claiming that critics had simply misinterpreted the designers’ original intention to celebrate co-existence, State Rep. Timothy Sherman of Winona declared, “The whole matter was cleared up with one sentence.”

But was it? Since 1983, critics have periodically called for reconsideration of Minnesota’s state seal and the flag that bears its image. In 2022, Lakota descendant Sen. Mary Kunesh and others asked for a new design that better represents the resilience and contributions of Native Americans in Minnesota. Others, including former Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, argued for honoring tradition. In 2023, the state Legislature established a 13-member State Emblems Redesign Commission and charged it with coming up with new designs for the state flag and seal by Jan. 1, 2024, to go into effect on May 11, 2024. The commission’s charter calls for a design that “ accurately and respectfully reflect(s) Minnesota’s shared history, resources, and diverse cultural communities.”

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.