In 2001, the North American Vexillological Association conducted a survey to rate the state and provincial flags of the United States and Canada, and Minnesota’s did not finish last.
It finished sixth from last.
Opinions about the flag have not improved. As such, by next May it will be lowered for the last time and replaced by a new banner designed by a 13-member commission created to approve a new flag and a new “Great Seal of the State of Minnesota.”
“It’s not an effective flag. It’s not popular. A lot of people don’t know we have a flag,” said Lee Herold who owns Herold Flags in Rochester. “That’s not a good situation when you live in a state and you don’t even know what your own state flag looks like.”
Minnesota’s flag falls into the grouping that populates the bottom of most rankings — state seals plopped into the middle of a solid background.
Others know exactly what it looks like and like it even less. The seal includes many images, but the central theme is of a farmer tilling a field with a Native American on horseback riding in the distance. While the pre-statehood-designed seal and flag might be subject to interpretation, a poem written by the wife of the designer says this about the image: “We claim his noble heritage/And Minnesota’s land/Must pass with all its untold wealth/To the white man’s grasping hand.”
The flag is not displayed by many tribal nations in the state, said Kevin Jensvold, the chair of the Upper Sioux Community.
“The flag is problematic, and I lay it out there as a simple truth so it can be seen from eyes that are different from most of the immigrants,” he told the House State Government Committee in February.
The prime sponsor of a bill to give the job of designing a new state seal and flag to a commission called the current emblems “a cluttered genocidal mess.” Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, said the commission must agree on replacements by Jan. 1 and, unless both houses of the Legislature veto it, it will be raised on Statehood Day, May 11, 2024.
If the commissioners can’t agree? The bill language that was placed in the lengthy state government omnibus bill repeals authorization and recognition for the current flag and seal. So no action would leave the state with nothing for a flag or seal and the commission would end its service by … raising a white flag (figuratively).
“I don’t expect that will happen,” Freiberg said in the closing days of the 2023 session.
Herold has been a student of flags ever since the state of Minnesota adopted the current design in 1957. He didn’t like it then and expected it to be replaced soon. It wasn’t, except for a slight change in 1983.
Vexillologists mostly agree on what makes for an effective flag — keep it simple, use meaningful symbolism, use two or three basic colors, no lettering or seals and “be distinctive or be related.” That is “avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.”
Minnesota breaks all the rules, Herold said.
“In the Minnesota flag there are three dates, there’s the state tree, the state flower, there’s a motto, there’s a scene with the river and St. Anthony falls, there’s a farmer, there’s an Indian. You can’t remember them all,” he said. “A flag is moving so it has to be very simple, very direct and have one or two symbols and be very distinctive.”
Herold has another rule of thumb: Flags should be simple enough that people could make them at home, generous for someone who sells them for a living.
Other states have changed their flags recently. Utah is already fighting over its just unveiled replacement, but Mississippi, which replaced a flag reminiscent of the Confederate flag with a new version, saw 73% of voters support one featuring the magnolia flower.
No such public vote will happen in Minnesota. The bill gives the commission the power, subject only to a veto. That drew opposition from Rep. Kurt Daudt during House floor debate.
“We haven’t seen the product. We won’t see the product until 2024, and then it will just happen,” the Crown Republican said. “It will become the state flag without legislative approval. That is wrong.”
Freiberg said he had confidence in a citizen commission.
“It’s a well-crafted commission that, I think, will come up with a great flag design and a great seal design,” he said.
The makeup of the commission, which will be appointed by Aug. 1, is this:
- Three members of the public appointed by Gov. Tim Walz
- One appointee of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage
- One appointee of the Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs
- One appointee of the Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans
- Two appointees by the Indian Affairs Council with one representing the Dakota community and one representing the Ojibwe community
- Someone representing the secretary of state, the state historical society, the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board, the Minnesota Arts Board and Explore Minnesota Tourism
- Four members of the Legislature from the GOP and DFL caucuses of both the House and Senate who would sit on the commission but would not have voting power
There is no budget for design experts but the commission can accept volunteer help. It must solicit public comments and its meetings are subject to open public meetings laws. Seven votes are required to approve a new flag and seal.
The directions from the Legislature are brief but still complex. “The designs must accurately and respectfully reflect Minnesota’s shared history, resources and diverse cultural communities,” the law says. “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.”
While the commission could decide to keep the current flag and seal, it is unlikely that it would or that retaining what is in place would meet the criteria in the law. That also suggests that while the current flag and seal are similar — though the flag is even more cluttered than the seal — there will be significant differences between the two come next May.
Freiberg often wears a lapel pin depicting what is called the North Star Flag that was designed in 1989 by the Rev. William Becker, the pastor of Saint Columbanus Catholic Church in Blooming Prairie, with involvement from Herold and others. It has just a few colors — blue above and green below a rippling white stripe. It has one symbol — the star that appears in the upper left corner. Freiberg said he would be fine if that was the flag chosen by the commission.
“If that is what the task force decided to do, I would be more than OK with that,” he said. “The people who came up with this design put a lot of thought into it.”
But Freiberg said his opinions might not be helpful.
“I’m color blind,” he said.