One of the main elements of Minnesota's state flag includes a prominent state seal against a blue background. The seal depicts a Native American riding off into the sunset while a white settler plows his field with his rifle leaning on a nearby stump. The imagery suggests to many that the Indigenous people were defeated and going away, while whites won and were staying.
Not only do the state's Dakota and Ojibwe tribes consider that offensive, but experts in the scientific and scholarly study of flags — known as vexillology — say it's an overly complicated design.
Guidelines from the North American Vexillological Association say flags should be simple but meaningful, with just a few colors, easily recognizable from a distance, and without seals or lettering. The association ranks Minnesota in 67th place out of 72 U.S. and Canadian state and provincial flags. Minnesota's design dates from 1957, an evolution from the 1893 original.
Minnesota is joining several other states in redesigning flags that haven't withstood the test of time. The Utah Legislature last winter approved a simplified flag design that still includes a beehive, a symbol of the prosperity and the industriousness of the Mormon pioneers who settled the state. Mississippi voters in 2020 chose a new state flag with a magnolia and the phrase “In God We Trust” to replace a Confederate-themed flag that had been used by Ku Klux Klan groups and was widely condemned as racist.
Other states considering simplifying their flags include Maine, where voters will decide next year whether to replace their current banner with a retro version featuring a simple pine tree and blue North Star, as well as Michigan and Illinois.
The Democratic-controlled Minnesota Legislature earlier this year tasked its commission — which includes representatives of the state's tribal and other communities of color — with producing new designs for the flag and seal by Jan 1. Unless the Legislature rejects them, the new emblems will automatically become official on April 1, 2024, which Minnesota observes as Statehood Day.
“What I am looking forward to is creating a flag that we can all be proud of, and a flag that everybody can look at and say: ”Yeah, that’s Minnesota’s flag. That’s a cool flag. That’s very distinctive," said the commission's vice chair, Anita Gall, who teaches state history at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Worthington.
In contrast to flags, state seals, which are used among other things to stamp official documents, can be more intricate, said Democratic Rep. Mike Freiberg, of Golden Valley, an author of the legislation for the new emblems.
Democratic Secretary of State Steve Simon, who sits on the panel, noted that one of his official duties is to serve as keeper of the state seal. “These are enduring symbols and emblems meant to last not just decades, but one or more centuries," Simon said. "And so it’s a big responsibility.”
Two Republican legislators with nonvoting seats on the panel urged their colleagues to choose designs that will be unifying symbols.
Rep. Bjorn Olson, of Fairmont, said the change will be difficult for him, as a student of history and as a captain in the Army Reserve, because outnumbered soldiers from Minnesota staged a critical charge that helped hold the Union line against advancing Confederate forces in the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. The 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment suffered heavy casualties while carrying a flag that was similar to the current design, he said.
“I know that there’s many Minnesotans that think we need a new flag and there’s many that don’t,” said Sen. Steve Drazkowski, of Mazeppa. “Obviously, the decision is made — we’re going to have a new flag. And so my goal going forward ... is that we have a flag that doesn’t represent one idea or one ideology or one anything, but represents all of Minnesota.”