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Minnesota's state flag doesn't get much love. Why it vexes experts who want it changed

For Lee Herold, a Rochester flag shop owner, longtime vexillologist and co-designer of a Minnesota flag replacement first proposed in 1989, it's all about effective symbolism. One anecdote says it all: He’s seen the current flag fly upside down at the Capitol and across the street at the senate office building.“No one even notices,” he said.

MN FLAG.jpg
Minnesota state flag
Minnesota Secretary of State
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ST. PAUL — Unoriginal. Unmemorable. Cluttered. Out of date.

For decades, Minnesota’s state flag has been the subject of criticism from vexillologists — experts who study symbolism and design in flags. Other critics say the current design should be abandoned because it glorifies the displacement of Native Americans from the state.

For Lee Herold, a Rochester flag shop owner, longtime vexillologist and co-designer of a Minnesota flag replacement first proposed in 1989, it's all about effective symbolism. One anecdote says it all: He’s seen the current flag fly upside down at the Capitol and across the street at the senate office building.

“No one even notices,” Herold said. “If the U.S. flag was flying upside down they’d get calls.”

Contrast that with other state flags that ranked near the top of a 2001 survey by the North American Vexillological Association of states, territories and Canadian provinces.

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“You go to Texas and you ask people what the flag looks like and they’ll look at you like you’re from Mars,” Herold said. “You go to Minnesota and you ask people what it looks like and some will say: ‘I didn’t know we had a flag.’”

Like many other states, Minnesota’s current flag, adopted in 1893, is built around the state’s seal. Surrounding the seal are 19 stars representing Minnesota as the 19th state to join the Union after the 13 original colonies, and three dates:

  • 1819 for the founding of Fort Snelling
  • 1858 for statehood
  • 1893 for the flag’s adoption

It’s been tweaked multiple times, with the current flag adopted by the Legislature in 1957, according to the Minnesota Secretary of State's Office.
Flag experts and enthusiasts point to a number of issues with the design: The details are impossible to see from afar and few people can remember them. It bears a resemblance to 20 other state flags, and everything is backward on its reverse. The flag says “Minnesota” when its symbolism should be enough to convey the idea of the state. It has too many different colors.

It also incorporates 19th century imagery celebrating colonialism, with the original state seal symbolizing white Europeans driving out the land’s original Native inhabitants. The current state seal of Minnesota depicts a white farmer tilling the soil with a gun leaning against a nearby stump as a Native American horse rider gallops nearby looking in his direction. The original seal showed the Native rider headed west into the sunset but state lawmakers in 1983 changed the direction to the south.

Push for change

North Star Flag.jpg
North Star flag
Created by Rev. Lee Herold and Rev. William Becker in 1989 and released to the public domain.

A redesign of the flag has come up repeatedly in the Legislature since 1989, when Herold and Rev. William Becker first unveiled their North Star flag design to the public. The design has a gold star in the top left corner that symbolizes the state’s French motto “L'étoile du Nord” — the star of the north. The green and white are colors of forests, farmland and winter. The blue is meant to evoke the sky-tinted waters that are Minnesota’s namesake derived from the Dakota language.

Reps. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, and Peter Fischer, DFL-Maplewood, have been working on a flag redesign proposal for a few years and are sponsoring a bill this session in the Legislature. Fischer said he started pushing on the issue in 2017 when two high school students approached him with concerns about the flag's design and resemblance to 20 or so other state flags.

If signed into law, Freiberg and Fischer’s bill would create a committee to develop a new design for the state flag and state seal and report back to the Legislature and governor. As introduced, the bill would require the committee’s designs to “accurately and respectfully reflect Minnesota's shared history, resources, and diverse cultural communities” and would exclude symbols that represent only a single community or person. The committee must also solicit public feedback, input and suggestions. Members would consist of appointees from the governor and Legislature as well as members of the state’s ethnic councils.

“The state seal has imagery on it that is a problem, to put it charitably,” Freiberg told the state government committee.

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The House State Government Committee heard the bill Tuesday, March 22, and forwarded it to the ways and means committee on an 8-5 vote split along party lines, with DFL members for and Republicans against. In the Senate, state government committee chair Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, has not expressed interest in taking up a flag change bill, a caucus spokesperson said.

It’s been more than 30 years since Herold and Becker debuted their North Star design, but Herold said he’s more encouraged than ever as many in the state warm up to the idea of a new design. Especially encouraging, he said, is an increase in the number of lawmakers willing to advocate for the issue.

“When I first would go out and talk to people there was a lot of negativism … let’s stay with the status quo, let’s not get involved in this, who cares about the flag?” he said. “That isn’t the case anymore, I don’t know what's the reason for it, but lots of people are quite interested.”

‘Good Flags, Bad Flags’

The 2001 survey by the North American Vexillological Association ranked Minnesota’s flag just five spots from last place among 72 U.S. states and territories and Canadian provinces. North Dakota fared slightly better, coming in at 56th place.

Why do so many U.S. state flags have a design featuring a state seal on a blue background? Herold said the theory is that it’s a product of the American Revolution and Civil War. Americans had rejected monarchy as a system of rule and were more likely to adopt seals as state symbols than coats of arms, he said.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the young state of Minnesota had not yet adopted a flag, but troops from the state carried flags with the state seal. Herold said he believes the state flag Minnesota adopted in 1893 draws inspiration from those Civil War regiment flags, and that many other states did the same.

North Dakota Flag.jpg
Flag of North Dakota

North Dakota’s flag also comes from a military banner, according to the state’s historical society. The state flag adopted in 1914 is thought to be inspired by a flag carried by North Dakota soldiers who fought alongside Theodore Roosevelt in the Spanish-American war.

Vexillologists for years have criticized the design of flags such as those of Minnesota and North Dakota, but on what grounds?

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“‘Good’ Flag, ‘Bad Flag’” by Ted Kaye of the North American Vexillological Society, first published in 2001, outlines five basic principles of good flag design:

  1. Keep It Simple: The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.
  2. Use Meaningful Symbolism: The flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.
  3. Use 2–3 Basic Colors: Limit the number of colors on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from the standard color set.
  4. No Lettering or Seals: Never use writing of any kind or an organization’s seal.
  5. Be Distinctive or Be Related: Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.

These rules are a good starting point for a flag design but can be broken as long as the designer does so with caution and purpose, Kaye writes. He points out that South Africa’s flag has six colors, all with “deep symbolic meaning,” and Maryland’s complicated heraldic banner-derived flag makes it “memorable and distinctive.”
Kaye also warns against designing a flag by committee, instead recommending a committee select a flag from individual submissions.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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