What’s In a Flag?: The Story of Minnesota’s New Design

After decades of complaints, something new is set to fly for all Minnesotans. How’d we get here?
A mockup of Minnesota's new flag
A mockup of Minnesota’s new flag

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Set the scene: A rectangle made of cloth. Why rectangular? To best catch the wind, some say. A nation’s fluttering identifier at sea. A flag.

On the left side of the flag, laid horizontally, there’s a shape—a swallowtail, a ribbon’s end, a Pac-Man mouth, or what it actually is: an abstraction of Minnesota, the K-shaped state. The color: not navy but the Pantone-official “Minnesota Blue.” One of the state’s brand colors, it evokes a summer night sky.

On top of this shape, there’s a white, eight-point star, in reference to the state motto “L’Étoile du Nord,” or “the Star of the North.” It symbolizes “unity above a land of diversity,” according to the flag’s original designer.

To the right of the abstraction, the flag is light blue—solid, icy in tone. It alludes to Minnesota’s Dakota namesake, a word translated to “land where the waters reflect the skies.”

And so, here it is. Minnesota embraced this new state flag—along with a new seal—Jan. 1, with plans for the redesigns to “activate” on Statehood Day, May 11, giving agencies time to start phasing out the old. The new seal depicts a loon floating beside wild rice, but for the sake of simplicity, this story focuses on the flag, which has garnered more attention.

It has whipped up controversy, too. Its supposed simplicity, or blandness, has angered some—for different reasons. Its replacement of Minnesota’s old flag has struck some as troubling and fraught—again, for different reasons. And so, it rises as a divisive flashpoint.

The old flag was divisive, too. In fact, that’s how we got here. After decades of complaints about it—a “cluttered genocidal mess,” as a Democratic lawmaker recently described the old flag—the new flag arrived late last year by way of a 17-member commission arranged by Gov. Tim Walz and mandated to consider public input on redesigns. The public would submit design ideas, then the commission would deliberate, decide, and possibly tweak. Four state legislators sat on this task force, two Democrats and two Republicans, without voting power. Four cultural committees, including the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and the Minnesotans of African Heritage, appointed other members. As goes for all flags, Minnesota’s new one would fly for all. By definition, at least.

If it wasn’t supposed to get too political—it’s a flag, after all, not a health care bill—it nonetheless unfurled amid a big legislative showing by the state’s first political “trifecta” in 10 years: Presiding over the senate, house, and governorship, Democrats passed the redesign bill when, historically, it has flopped.

Public reaction has varied, from This is it! to This is it?! 

Actually, most Minnesotans do not seem to like it. KSTP survey results rolled in a month after its debut, and of more than 1,800 respondents, just under three-quarters did not like the new flag. Conducted by the nonpartisan SurveyUSA, it was deflating news: Under half preferred the old flag while more than 20% said Minnesota should retreat to the drawing board. Just 23% liked it, with 7% unsure.

Polling divisions traced party lines. Among Republicans, almost 70% preferred the old flag, 15% wanted something else, and 11% liked the new. Among Democrats, 28% favored the old, 25% wanted something else, and almost 40% liked the new. The rest were unsure. (Over half of Independents preferred the old.)

On the capital steps in March, it inspired a sparse protest. Republicans rallied to put the redesigns to a statewide vote. “Last session, legislative Democrats deliberately disenfranchised Minnesota citizens,” said Sen. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa), kicking off a press conference the same day. Drazkowski sat on the commission as a nonvoting member. “We need to let the people of Minnesota have input and be heard in this process,” he said, describing the commission as “rushed” and suggesting most commissioners failed to sufficiently account for public feedback.

On X (once Twitter), Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan (White Earth Band of Ojibwe) chimed in: “Dare I say anything that’s not a Native person being forced off their land is a flag upgrade?!”

Minnesota's previous flag
Minnesota’s previous flag

Out With the Old

To consider Minnesota’s old flag, consider Minnesota’s old seal. The old flag, after all, was essentially just the old seal on royal blue fabric. It’s where this entire debate begins.

That seal, from 1858, depicts a white settler plowing beside an axe and a rifle. Behind him, a Native person rides by on horseback, into the sunset. Often, state seals have heralded “progress,” according to the Minnesota Historical Society. 

Minnesota came up with its original flag design—a square emblazoned with the old seal—in 1893. Almost 65 years later, it was streamlined, becoming the familiar blue rectangle. It has bothered people for decades. For flag-design nerds, it’s ineffective. From afar, it resembles more than 20 other state flags. The seal’s fine details jumble together. In 2001, the national society of flag-design experts voted Minnesota’s flag among the worst. 

It is seen as offensive, too. In 1968, the Minneapolis Star newspaper quoted the state’s human rights board calling for a redesign and explaining the seal “illustrates a dark part of our history.” In 1983, a seal redesign did happen. It kept the concept while angling the Native rider south, not west, with the west seeming to symbolize removal or certain end. Legislation minted explanatory language softening Manifest Destiny: The rider represents “great Indian heritage.”

That didn’t quell debate. Since 2000, at least 10 redesign bills have cropped up, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

At face value, Minnesota’s new flag has fixed the major concerns. But now some call it ugly, and others call it an undemocratic disgrace.

What’s in a Flag?

Andrew Prekker is a 25-year-old resident of Luverne, the quartz-and-prairie town of southwest Minnesota. He submitted the idea chosen by the commission—with two major changes to it. Even he admits he may have balked at the new flag had he not researched flag design. “I would have thought, ‘Oh, it’s way too simple,’” he says. “It looks like clip art.’”

But he did research flag design, as did the commissioners.

On Oct. 31, the secretary of the North American Vexillological Association—“vexillology” being the study of flag design—offered tips to the commission, which was allowed to seek expert guidance. The flag should have no more than two or three colors, Ted Kaye told them. No lettering. No seals.

A flag is a signaling device, so it should be identifiable from a distance—and distinctive. Not cute. Not too clever. “There is no such thing as ‘too simple,’” he said. “Now, your public, who doesn’t understand flag design, will often say, ‘That’s too simple. That looks like a kid drew it.’ Actually, that’s the point.”

Based on this criteria, Prekker’s original idea was almost great.

The graduate of Minnesota West Community and Technical College was doing part-time graphic design work and had, bizarrely, mocked up a state flag the week before the commission put out its call, because the “Minnesotans for a Better Flag” Facebook group had caught his attention.

After 50-some reworkings, he submitted F1953, among more than 2,000 flag entries. Eventually, it landed among six finalists.

In a meeting, commission-elected chair Luis Fitch, a veteran graphic designer and appointee of the Council on Latino Affairs, acknowledged Prekker’s swallowtail abstraction as “too abstract” to jump out as the state shape. 

Emblazoned on that shape, in Prekker’s original design, is a stately, compass-like North Star. Another commissioner critiqued the effect as “a little Texas.” To its right are three stripes: white, for snow; green, for agriculture; and light blue, for water.

Prekker’s idea followed the brief to not single out a community. It was one of the simplest concepts.

But to make the vexillological A grade, they simplified it further, scrapping the stripes. “Green maybe represented one of the least unique things about Minnesota,” Fitch says. “There’s greenery in every state,” whereas water defines the Land of 10,000 Lakes. So, keep only the light blue.

They changed the star, as well. A different style had popped up in other submissions. It is a multicultural symbol, an adornment on Native quilts as well as on outstate barns. The eight-point star was used in ancient Babylon to depict astral bodies, according to one commissioner. It has historic resonance in Islam and Judaism. Tilted out of its boxy shape, it points north and south—a unique, stylized North Star. The same shape as the rotunda floor in St. Paul’s Capitol building, it is also made up of four easy-to-draw “M”s, for Minnesota. One commissioner even took video of their kid drawing it, one “M” at a time.

Respect, or Erasure?

Those against the flag have not only called it a “bland,” “lame” “beach towel,” to borrow snark from X and Reddit. To some, it stands for cultural erasure and Democratic abuse of power. The fight has grown bitter and complex in a way that may ring familiar.

It was a brisk March afternoon when just a few dozen showed up at the Capitol to protest, including a handful of journalists.

Republicans had proposed a statewide vote on redesigns. Unlike “referendum states,” Minnesota lacks a system by which to put such things up for vote. With the flag representing all Minnesotans, one protester shrugged: “Why not?”

Speakers took turns at a lectern. The founding director of the American Indian Coalition, Raul Estrada, said the old flag depicts “two cultures living in harmony.” Sen. Nathan Wesenberg (R-Little Falls) said the new flag “looks like it was made on a Google doc,” adding, “That’s not history.” Rep. Bjorn Olson (R-Fairmont), the other Republican official and nonvoting member on the commission, said the goal of the proposed bill isn’t to return to the old flag but to give all Minnesotans—not just 13 of them—the chance to vote for what they want.

One argument hinges on the Civil War. Regiments fought under their own flags, according to the Minnesota Historical Society. Minnesota would not have a state flag for another 30 years, but some regimental flags resembled it in concept, bearing the old seal. One protester said she felt “appalled” that this piece of state history should be “erased.”

Donna Bergstrom, member of the Red Lake Nation and deputy chair of the Minnesota Republicans, said the new flag represents a “modern-day Indian removal campaign.” She read a letter from the Native American Guardian’s Association, a nonprofit urging the nation to “educate, not eradicate”—arguing, for example, that Native imagery in sports-team logos can and should inspire Native pride rather than accusations of insensitivity.

“Once you erase Native Americans from the flag, or the immigrant farmer that’s on there, you’re really erasing that conversation,” she says by phone later.

Kate Beane, a Dakota commissioner appointed by the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board, hopes the new flag does serve to educate, raising awareness of the state’s flag history. She is also a descendant of Seth Eastman, whose watercolor painting became the original seal. “When we speak of the symbolism of that design being one of Manifest Destiny, that’s a very real thing,” she says.

A minority report, released not long after the flag’s debut, aired the grievances of three commissioners, including the two nonvoting Republicans. It says the legislature’s tight timeline set up the commission and the Minnesota Historical Society, which provided administrative support, to shortchange public feedback on the finalists. That feedback filled a spreadsheet of more than 600 pages. “There needed to be an attempt at addressing the [public] comments consistently or summarizing the overwhelming number of comments,” the report stated.

“We had more than two weeks to read” the thousands of comments, Fitch says. “Every week—and it’s on video—I will ask if everybody had a chance to read, and they will say yes.” Olson counters, “If any member of the commission [besides Fitch] said they read every one of the comments, I would laugh.”

Commissioner and secretary of state Steve Simon says general misunderstanding may explain some blowback, with ideas coming and going without a vote. Olson says the commission didn’t have enough time to pick up proposals—such as the idea to show flag concepts in all congressional districts, rather than, ultimately, just at the Mall of America and in Detroit Lakes.

The commission’s timeline was fairly short, and its budget fairly small. Where Utah’s task force worked 18 months on a new flag and reportedly spent over $480,000, Minnesota’s had about four months and $35,000 (spent on salaries, printing costs, and tech support, per the Minnesota Historical Society).

Was Minnesota rushed, as the minority report states? “I don’t think so,” says Fitch, who is used to quick turnarounds for corporate clients like Target. “Nobody complained that they didn’t have enough time to design.”

Stars and Loons

Then, there was the populist lament: Many vocal Minnesotans seemed to really want a loon on the flag.

Fitch says just 291 of more than 2,000 flag submissions featured a  common loon—and still, headlines bemoaned the state bird’s absence from the six flag finalists.

In response, Fitch showed the commission a map of loons’ breeding distribution. With practically nothing observed in southern Minnesota, the point was: How many Minnesotans have actually even seen a common loon? Olson, a representative of southern Minnesota, had raised this point earlier. “Yes, it’s a state symbol,” Fitch said, “but it doesn’t represent the people of Minnesota everywhere in the state.” Much more representative, he said, a star appeared in 1,785 submissions.

If the new design requires a didactic to understand, perhaps that is why criticism—and sarcasm—flowed so easily online.

“I don’t think there’s that much interest in the state in the flag,” says Larry Jacobs, political science professor at the University of Minnesota. “It’s kind of, ‘Knock yourself out if you want to do it.’ But for Republicans, the way it’s being talked about, how it’s being framed, is very much a cultural issue. It’s a threat toward identity.”

Aaron Wittnebel, the Ojibwe appointee of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, who identifies as a centrist, says the commission leaned center- and far-left. Familiar with the open appointment process for state boards, he wonders why there couldn’t have been at least one party representative per congressional district.

Others have roasted what they see as Republican controversy-mongering. “GOP can’t govern, but they can sure throw hissy fits over things that don’t affect our quality of life,” went one comment below a Star Tribune article about the proposed bill.

Online discussion elsewhere skewed conspiratorial. Some said Prekker’s striped concept looked like state flags of Somalia. “To be honest, it did look very similar,” Fitch says. Media outlets swooped in. On X, a podcaster known for right-wing views implied the nation’s largest Somali population had “conquered” Minnesota. “Honestly, my reaction was, I thought it was kind of ridiculous,” Prekker says. “Three stripes—you see that on probably 40-plus flags from around the world.”

The minority report did not frame the resemblance as intentional but stated the commission needed “to take seriously the sense of the people who noticed this and not just brush off the comment as inspired by some ill intention.”

The flag, in a way, could fly for a term political scientists have begun using: “affective polarization.” Politics today can seem rooted in a reactive, gut-level dislike of the “other,” as described in a Washington Post article this year about the term.

In another way, what’s happening isn’t new. Canada’s maple-leaf flag endured similar heat. That iconic red-and-white flag replaced one that had incorporated Britain’s Union Jack. English Canadians, protective of the country’s colonial history, bristled. One historian recalled the House of Commons’ “ugliest” debate. But at least one designer whose concept centered a maple leaf had aspired to ditch symbols “that inflamed Quebec nationalists and threatened Canadian unity,” according to the Canadian Encyclopedia. This all took place in the mid-1960s yet mirrors what Minnesota is going through today.

“The Canadian flag is one of the most loved flags in the world,” Prekker says. “I think it’s just kind of a part of the process.”

Jacobs sees the Republican-proposed bill as a wedge issue for an election year. “In a state like Minnesota, where you’ve got a very weak Republican party, and where it’s quite likely the Democrats will do well, the idea of low turnout or lower-than-expected turnout among Republicans is a real concern to candidates,” he says. “I think what’s really being attempted here is to use this powerful cultural symbol, of the flag in Minnesota, as a way to try to boost Republican turnout.” He points to other evocative flag moments: banner-burning controversies in the 1960s and ’70s; resistance to the Pledge of Allegiance.

If the new flag truly is bland, that may be why it has already represented so much. One moment that felt decisive and unifying to some happened toward the end of the redesign process. The commissioners needed to wrap things up, and when they tipped the flag design vertically—to view it banner-style—Fitch saw the Mississippi River stretching toward the North Star. “If we go back to why we have so many Fortune 500 companies here, it is because—if we go back to history—of the Mississippi River,” he said at that mid-December meeting. The river begins in the land that became Minnesota and precedes European settlers as well as Native Americans. The star “has always been a guide … for Native Americans, Europeans, and African Americans coming from the South,” Fitch says later by phone. “There were no maps for them.” Today, if the new flag is a map for Minnesotans, it may still take some close reading.