Thursday, May 23, 2024

Ask Minnesotans about the state’s official flag, and prepare for a crush of critiques.

Start with legibility. Viewed from afar, it is difficult to make sense of the jumble of dates, stars and the state slogan, in French, which rings the centerpiece image.

Aesthetically, it is, well, not a marvel, many a Minnesotan will tell you, with Midwestern restraint.

Zoom in on the scene depicted at the core, which happens to be the state seal, to understand why a lawmaker who led the latest effort to retire the flag calls it “a cluttered genocidal mess.”

In the foreground is a pioneer using a plow next to a tree stump, which features a rifle and an ax. Behind him is a Native American man on horseback, spear in hand, riding beside a sunset.

“It’s literally a Native person being driven off their land,” said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a Democrat, who is a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and has refused, on principle, to use the state flag or seal in official correspondence and paperwork. “It’s horrific.”

Within months, it will likely become a relic.

A commission the State Legislature appointed this year to design a new flag recently unveiled six finalists after considering more than 2,100 submissions. The commission also solicited sketches for a new seal, and earlier this week selected a finalist, which features a loon, the state bird. The current seal was adopted in 1858, the year Minnesota became a state.

The closely watched and much-debated contest for a new flag and seal has been at once a soul-searching exercise for Minnesotans and an effort to spruce up the image of a state known for plentiful lakes, cruel winters and supersized annual summer fair.

“We’re dealing with ostensibly six million or so different opinions about what constitutes home and distilling the concept of home for that many different people,” said Todd Pitman, 39, a graphic designer who, along with his father, sketched one of the designs that is a final contender. “That’s a task.

The plan to replace the flag has faced a measure of resistance. Some lawmakers have asserted that the scene in the seal should not be construed as racist. Farmers have voiced concern that the new designs fail to pay homage to the state’s agriculture sector.

The State Emblems Redesign Commission, which is chaired by the Minneapolis-based artist Luis Fitch, provided detailed guidance for submissions. Entries needed to be simple, easy to recognize, free of lettering and “represent Minnesota’s enduring values and aspirations, emphasizing inclusivity and unity.”

Minnesotans, known for civic engagement, produced more than 2,600 submissions.

A great many featured loons, which turned out to be a losing strategy since not one of the flag designs featuring birds was among the finalists. Some were rendered by children — we hope? — with crayons. Submission F156, a vertical photo of a Labrador retriever on a grassy field, got much love on the internet. Snowflakes abounded, as did renderings of the state motto, “L’etoile du Nord” — the North Star.

Sarah Agaton Howes, 47, an artist from the Fond du Lac Reservation in northern Minnesota, said she appreciated the humor and chatter the flag overhaul has sparked. But she said she sketched her design — which is among the finalists — with a heavy heart. Her children, she said in an interview, recoil at the sight of the current flag.

“Pledging allegiance to a flag that has hurt us is not something I’m willing to do,” she said. “Those images and what they trigger in our memory is really powerful.”

Since the finalists were unveiled in November, members of the flag redesign commission have received more than 15,000 comments, and debate about the designs has raged online. The commission must submit a finalist to the governor and Legislature by Jan. 1. The new flag is expected to make its debut on May 11, Minnesota’s 166th birthday, unless state legislators object.

Brandon Hundt, 40, a St. Paul-based designer whose submission made the final six, said he hoped the new flag will do more than retire an emblem that is loathed by many Minnesotans. He said he drew his inspiration from flags like New Mexico’s, which are simple and widely recognized.

“Minnesotans haven’t had a single symbol that represents the state,” he said. “Whichever flag is chosen could become really iconic and transform how we see ourselves, visually, as a state.”

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