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Minnesota lawmakers ponder changing flag and seal

Supporters say the current state flag isn't clearly recognizable outside of Minnesota, and that it features a seal that's offensive to some Native Americans.

ST PAUL, Minn. — By state law, the Minnesota flag must carry an image of the official state seal, which has been around pretty much since statehood in 1858. Some at the State Capitol say the time has come to update both the seal and the flag that displays it in multitudes of places.

It's been tried many times before, and House Democrats are moving forward with legislation that would create a 14-member commission with diverse membership to study new designs and make a recommendation to the legislature.

"When you think of it, your state flag should be like your state brand," Rep. Peter Fischer, a Maplewood Democrat, told KARE.

"Canada, it’s got red, white, red with a big, red leaf. You know what it means. That’s what you want. You want a flag that when people see it, they say, "Oh! That’s the state of Minnesota!"

Fischer's flag bill was combined with DFL Rep. Mike Frieberg's legislation calling for a redesign of the state steal. The bill passed the House State Government Committee Tuesday, with the Democrats all voting in favor and Republicans all opposed.

Fischer started working on the legislation in 2017 after being contacted by local high school students who asked for change and proposed several possible designs.  They assert the current flag, which features the state seal on a blue background, is cluttered and isn't easily recognizable from a distance.

The North Star

That was the same issue that Lee Herald, a flag store owner in Rochester, found with the state's waving banner when he started imagining a makeover in the 1980s.

"I’ve seen the state flag at the State Capitol and the new Senate Office Building flying upside down. And people don't even notice," Herold told KARE.

"A state flag should be like flowers to a bee or a picnic to ants -- it should attract people."

Herold's ally in the flag reform effort, Father William Becker, designed The North Star Flag in 1989. It includes a large yellow star and swaths of blue for water, white for changing seasons and green for forests and agriculture.

Herold took it to the State Capitol that same year to present it to lawmakers, with the help of then-Rep. Gil Gutknecht, a Republican who later served six terms in Congress.

"It’s reminiscent of the current flag but it’s something people can see quickly and recognize. People see it and remember it right away," Herold explained.

The Seal

The seal has also drawn criticism from Native American Minnesotans. 

It depicts a farmer in the foreground plowing a field with a rifle and ax on a tree stump nearby. The farmer appears to be looking over his shoulder at a shirtless Indigenous brave riding a horse holding a spear as the sun sets behind him.

"Everybody’s entitled to their interpretation and the interpretation of the Yellow Medicine Dakota is that it’s offensive," Upper Sioux Community Chair Kevin Jensvold told KARE.

"We're well aware of the punishment inflicted on our ancestors and that seal itself is a reminder."

Jensvold said for him and many other Indigenous Minnesotans the imagery on the seal symbolizes European immigrants pushing his ancestors off their lands, and the attitudes about American Indians that still persist in white majority society.

"You see a clear divide between the plowed field and the natural environment. And the firearm, the gun that leans against that stump? What does that represent to a logical human being? There has to be some mistrust construed by that symbol."

Herold details the long history of the state flag debate on The North Star Flag website. He also sells those flags in his store and online.

"Americans are looking for the Ukraine flag because it’s easy to recognize. It’s a simple flag. And it means something. We should have a state flag that is that good."

Rep. Fischer said it would be up to the commission to study all of the alternatives with an eye toward flag design techniques and imagery that represents the strengths of Minnesota.

He said one thing that may weigh against the North Star Flag is that the Duluth adopted a new city flag in 2019 that looks eerily similar to the North Star flag Herold and Becker unveiled in 1989.

Credit: KARE
Proposed North Star state flag compared to Duluth city flag

Republicans who voted against the bill in committee didn't make any comments explaining their opposition. Capitol sources said GOP lawmakers haven't heard from their constituents that this is a pressing issue.

The GOP-controlled Senate hasn't taken up the bill yet.

Republicans by and large favor reinstalling the 1931 Christopher Columbus statue protesters ripped down in 2020 during the unrest following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer.

In 2017 two historic paintings were removed the Governor's Reception Room at the State Capitol after a task force agreed they were potentially offensive, insensitive and inaccurate in their portrayals of Indigenous people.

"Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony" and "The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux" were moved to the third floor of the Capitol and are now displayed with more detailed historical context.

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