Minnesotans didn't think much of the state flag. If we thought about it at all.
Hideously boring at a distance. Hideously racist up close.
Flags tell you at a glance where you are and who you're with. The central image on Minnesota's cluttered, confusing flag is an Indian riding out of the picture with a white man's gun front and center.
Fans of decency and decent flag design thought Minnesota deserved better. For decades, they lobbied the Legislature for a redesign. A north star. A lake. A loon. A mosquito rampant on a field of Tater Tots.
This year it happened. Minnesota is getting a new flag.
We have six months to find one.
A flag that's simple yet striking. A flag you could draw from memory. A flag that says Minnesota, but in a good way.
In Lee Herold's flag shop in Rochester, an interview about the new state flag was interrupted by a customer eager to talk about the new state flag. Conversations about the old state flag tended to be a lot less enthusiastic.
Herold didn't just want a better flag for Minnesota. He helped make one.
Back in 1989, Herold and fellow flag enthusiast Rev. William Becker created the North Star flag: A bright star in a blue sky over a green field, separated by a wavy line that evokes snowy hills and winding rivers.
This summer, 13 Minnesotans will take their seats on a new State Emblems Redesign Commission.
"I don't envy you," Upper Sioux Community Tribal Chair Kevin Jensvold told lawmakers earlier this year, imagining the work ahead for that committee. The Dakota have long known the importance of a good flag.
"In my mother's culture, we have a flag. It's called wapaha," Jensvold said. Before the settlers, before the broken treaties, the Yellow Medicine Dakota were travelers who recognized each other by the symbols they carried.
"The wapaha would identify that band and would tell the story of who they were," Jensvold said. "When they [saw] that wapaha coming, that staff, they would know who our relatives are."
This time, there will be Dakota and Ojibwe representatives on the flag design committee. There will be historians and politicians and state tourism officials. Under the terms of the legislation, there will be Black voices in the room, and Latino voices, and Asian voices. There will be Republicans in the room and Democrats in the room, all trying to give Minnesota the flag it deserves.
They'll look at established flag designs like the North Star flag – you can see it and other thoughtful designs at the Minnesotans for a Better Flag website, newmnflag.org.. Flags with stars and snowflakes and compass points and spots like the feathers of a loon.
If you think it's hard to pick a favorite from that short list, wait until the public comments open. Every Minnesotan is able and encouraged to submit a flag design. State flag redesigns in other states drew thousands of proposals.
Sifting through all those design ideas helped Mississippi replace a flag full of ugly Confederate iconography with a lovely magnolia. Utah took a flag so boring it looked like Minnesota's at a distance, and turned it into a golden beehive, set against a mountain range. Nobody's going to look at that flag and think "Minnesota, maybe?"
"I think there are a lot of people who know our state is better than what's represented on our flag," said state Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, who helped carry the flag redesign legislation.
The Legislature gave the commission until the end of this year to redesign both the flag and the state seal. Unless both the state House and Senate object, a new flag will fly over Minnesota on Statehood Day, May 11 in 2024.
"A lot of things are polarized now, unfortunately, so I certainly can't promise everyone will love it or think the process is great," he said. But Minnesota's current flag isn't the sort of symbol most people want to rally around.
"At best, they're indifferent to it," Freiberg said. "At worst, they're offended by it."
The best thing this bad flag ever did was bring Minnesotans together to work on something better.