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Is Madison’s Flag Offensive?

Jun 07, 2017

blob.png flag made by johnin

Madison’s flag has been heralded as one of the finest city banners. A 2004 surveyconducted by the North American Vexillological Association ranked it 11th best out of 150 city flags. It’s a master of simplicity and symbolism. The light blue background represents lakes Mendota and Monona. The white diagonal band through the center evokes Madison’s isthmus. A black cross in the center symbolizes the Capitol and the city’s four lakes. A gold sun symbol is overlaid on the cross to complete the centerpiece and to represent Madison as a shining city.

But the use of that sun emblem — a sacred symbol of the Zia Pueblo people of New Mexico — gives Ald. Arvina Martin pause.

“It does give the appearance of the Capitol,” says Martin. “But, unfortunately, it’s also an extremely sacred symbol to people that didn’t really have a say in how that symbol was going to be used.”

Martin is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation and the first Native American to serve on the Common Council. She says native people have long been put off by the cultural appropriation of the Zia sun symbol on Madison’s flag.

“The Zia Pueblo is a very distinct tribe. They’ve never been up here, they are in the Southwest,” Martin says. “I don’t think the folks that created the flag had any ill-intentions or did this out of maliciousness. I just think people now have a greater understanding of cultural appropriation and how that relates to symbols and ideas. It’s something that we need to think about.”

Rick and Dennis Stone, brothers who were in the Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps, designed Madison’s flag in the early 1960s. Their color guard instructor, John Price, inspired them to design a flag for the city.

“He thought we needed a Madison flag because we were always competing against other corps around the country, many of which had a flag representing their city,” says Rick Stone, who was 18 at the time. “We just sat down one day at our kitchen table and put it together. We used the isthmus as sort of the foundation of the design. We knew we needed something to represent the Capitol.”

Their mother sewed the very first Madison flag. In April 1962, the Stone brothers presented the flag to Mayor Henry Edward Reynolds and it was officially adopted by the city.

Stone says he wasn’t trying to appropriate anyone else’s culture with the design. “I knew it was a sun symbol but not that it was [Zia] Pueblo,” says Stone.

Stone is open to having his design altered.

“I wouldn’t have any objection to changing it,” he says. “Just as long as it doesn’t significantly change the flag’s design or makes it look completely different.”

For 30 years, the Zia have been fighting for control of their sun symbol. In 1999, Amadeo Shije, the former governor of Zia Pueblo, said “it was and is central to the Pueblo’s religion. It was and is a most sacred symbol. It represents the tribe itself.”

But since the state of New Mexico adopted the Zia symbol in its flag in 1926, policing the emblem through the courts is difficult. The symbol has been used commercially to sell everything from motorcycles to portable toilets. At first, the tribal nation sought to keep others from using its symbol entirely. But starting in the 2000s, the Zia started negotiating voluntary compensation agreements with corporate entities like Southwest Airlines and the New Mexico Bowl to use the symbol.

Martin wants to start a conversation about “altering” the Madison flag or, at the very least, consulting with the Zia people to see how they feel about a city — more than 1,000 miles away — using its symbol.

“I think it would be great if we could have a flag that honors the spirit of what the original designers wanted,” Martin says. “But we can do it without stepping on native communities’ toes and using their symbol without permission. I want to approach this thoughtfully and carefully. I don’t think this needs to be something that people get really riled up about.”

In December 2015, Ald. Maurice Cheeks championed a resolution requiring that the Madison flag be flown on all permanent flagpoles on city property. He says since the flag has been displayed more prominently, a number of members of the American Indian community have expressed concern about the design’s “insensitivity.”

“Flags are important sources of symbolism and pride,” Cheeks writes in an email. “I look forward to working with Ald. Martin to explore how our flag can be something that all people can be proud of, enjoy, find beautiful and brag about.”

Although Martin says Madison’s use of the sun symbol is problematic, she doesn’t single anyone out for criticism.

“I think the use of the Zia sun symbol was done only with positive intentions,” Martin says. “But I do not think it’s appropriate for our city flag.”