StarTribune | Speaking of State Flags…

The Star Tribune recently voiced Minnesotan’s objections to official display of the Confederate flag at South Carolina’s statehouse. Minnesotans, however, should look first at our own state flag. After all, its history is also marred by bigotry.

1858 Minnesota State Seal
1858 Minnesota State Seal (courtesy Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State)

Among other things, Minnesota’s flag features our state seal. The latter shows a pioneer farming and an Indian riding away on horseback. It was created for the Minnesota territory in 1849. It symbolized Indian flight from the white man’s “manifest destiny” – a nineteenth century euphemism for what amounted to ethnic cleansing.

Even then the Minnesota historical Society acknowledges the symbolism. The following poem about the seal was written by the wife of its designer:

“Give way, give way, young warrior,
Thou and thy steed give way;
Rest not, though lingers on the hills
The red sun’s parting ray.
The rock bluff and prairie land
The white man claims them now,
The symbols of his course are here,
The rifle, axe, and plough.”

Civil rights advocates objected to the seal for decades before the Legislature modified it in 1983. The Indian no longer flees westward into the setting sun. He rides south instead. Nevertheless, for many Minnesotans the seal’s original legacy is hard to forget.

Eleven years ago the Star Tribune endorsed the idea of a new Minnesota flag. After all, few Minnesotans recognize or remember it’s complicated design (editorial, March 21, 1989) surely woeful history is another reason. Why should our state flag summon up bitter memories instead of honor for all?

I agree that the Confederate flag should be hauled down from the South Carolina statehouse. But before Minnesotans moralize further about symbols of the Southern bigotry, let’s examine our own.

– The Rev. William M Becker, Winona State University, Minn., Assistant Professor of Theology

(Originally published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 12, 2000. Reprinted with the author’s permission)