Zia’s Symbol, New Mexico’s Flag


This is the story of a pot and a flag and how the two became intertwined in the history of New Mexico. The pot belongs to the Fire Society of Zia Pueblo, and the flag is the state flag of New Mexico. The flag was designed by Dr. H. P. Mera and constructed by his wife, Reba. While no one knows who made the pot, it was certainly made at Zia Pueblo well before 1890. How the pot came to be in Santa Fe and how it became the model for the state flag is a tale worth thinking about.

For New Mexico, it probably began with the United States Bureau of Ethnology.

The job of the Bureau of Ethnology was a benevolent one. The plan was to record as much of the culture and languages of the original people as possible before they all realized the great advantage of living like their Anglo-American conquerors. It was assumed that as soon as Indian peoples saw the technological advances of what the scientists considered the “superior” Americans of the future, they would desert their old ways within a few years. Therefore, the government sent a trained group of scientists out to record as much information as they could about the Americans they believed were vanishing. The people sent out were typical nineteenth-century scientists: driven, intelligent, hardworking, diligent, entitled, overbearing, and bad mannered. They had the classic colonial European outlook for studying the people they considered “savages.” The rights of those being studied never crossed their minds. In the Southwest, where much of the Indian culture was still intact, these scientists were in heaven.

The people being studied accepted this intrusion with the tolerance and caution of people encountering a more domineering culture. The Native peoples of the Southwest, even the more militant ones, are inherently polite. They attempted to accommodate the pushy strangers with as much grace as possible, aiding their research with information as long as it was not too private or esoteric, and sometimes even then.

Three very influential researchers sent out to New Mexico were Frank Hamilton Cushing and James and Matilda Stevenson. Cushing left in1884, but the Stevensons continued to do research. With James’s death in 1888, Matilda took over the work alone. Though disturbingly intrusive, her work has been a valuable resource for understanding early Pueblo life, not only for generations of ethnologists but on occasion for the people of the pueblos as well.

Matilda set her eyes on Zia Pueblo, set up camp there in 1890, and began doing research. At the time, Zia had a population of ninety-seven people, and none of them could read or write. Matilda was pretty sure the whole population would be gone in a generation, so it was important to collect objects and information before all was lost. At that time she collected a Snake Society vase that was religiously very important to the Zia people and took it to the Smithsonian Institution. The Zia Pueblo tribal council informed Tillie that the people did not want to give up that vase, but Tillie was a very overbearing person. It has been said that on the night before she left Zia, Matilda’s wagon was packed, and at a designated spot an exchange was made. Whether the pot was acquired by coercion or bribery, the next morning it and Tillie left the Pueblo. (The Smithsonian repatriated the Snake Society vase to Zia Pueblo in the 1980s).

Around the time that the Smithsonian pot disappeared, the people of Zia found that another important pot was missing—a jar that belonged to the Fire Society. This jar was precious to the people of Zia, but where it went was a mystery to them. We do not know if Matilda also collected the Fire Society pot, but someone did.

The Bureau of Ethnography’s attitude to collecting was shared by some of the general public. Because of the intense interest of anthropologists and archaeologists, collecting became extremely popular with some of the people of Santa Fe, especially local artists and leading lights, including L. Bradford Prince, governor of the Territory of New Mexico. In the 1900s, local intellectuals set up the Indian Arts Fund to protect older pieces of pottery for their artistic and historic value. One of these collector/artists was the famous cubist Andrew Dasburg. How the pot from the Zia Fire Society shrine got into his hands we may never know, but in the 1920s he was in possession of it.

In the 1920s Harry P. Mera, a local physician, was involved in the start of the Indian Arts Fund. In 1921 Mera and his brother Frank joined forces to start Sun Mount, a sanitarium in the hills on the south side of Santa Fe. Harry Mera fell in love with New Mexico and was fascinated with Southwestern archaeology and the crafts of the local Native peoples. Through a series of fortuitous events, he was also a trained designer. By1925 he had spent a lot of time studying the collections of the Santa Fe Historical Society, the Indian Arts Funds treasures, and, no doubt, the acquisitions of other local collectors. During that time he must have seen the collection of Andrew Dasburg.

When the competition for the state flag design was announced by the Daughters of the American Revolution, Mera remembered the pot from Zia sitting in Dasburg’s collection. Part of the design was a representation of Native American beliefs. It had a circle, for the wholeness of things, and three sets of rays coming off of the circle in four directions. Four is a number of profound significance in most indigenous cultures of the Western Hemisphere. There were only three rays on the pot, but if he split the central ray to make sixteen rays in all and set them in pairs of long and short lines, Mera believed he had a design that could honor all Native peoples in New Mexico, equally. With the design firmly in his head, Mera chose red and gold for the state flag, the colors of the flag of Spain. He then had a design that included all the people who were living here before the state was annexed by the US. Not only that, the design was simple, striking, and beautiful—not fussy like the designs on flags of other states.

Mera probably had no idea the pot was anything special, besides the fact that it had been collected in the 1890s, and it never occurred to him to ask Zia Pueblo if they had any reservations about his using their design. (In 1925 it would not have occurred to most people in Santa Fe to ask any Indian group if they could use such a design.) At that time, Zia had a population of between 115 and 120 people, and none of them knew where their pot was or how to get it back. In 1925 the Indians of New Mexico couldn’t vote; some non-Indians considered them less than human, much less to have civil rights. Zia had few if any avenues for launching a complaint about the use of their symbol.

Up until the 1970s it would have been assumed by most of the non-Indian population that such a design was in the public domain, and the idea that anyone would object to such use never entered Mera’s head. Though the flag simplifies the pot’s design by eliminating the face and changes the three rays per side to four, the similarity is obvious. Mera said that that Zia pot inspired his design. He had Reba make a sample flag out of silk, and he submitted it for the contest. The flag won hands down and is still considered one of the best-designed state or provincial flags in the US or Canada.

The response of the Zia people was undoubtedly one of surprise. It was a great honor for the design on their pot to be used for the state flag, but it was also alarming. Did this mean that the symbol now belonged to the state? Can a people own a symbol?

If the symbol has religious meaning to one group, or several, for that matter, can it be taken over by a government that doesn’t see it as religious, for secular purposes?

Now, at least, the Zia people knew what had become of their pot. In 1931 Andrew Dasburg donated it to Edgar Hewett’s School for American Archaeology, now the School for Advanced Research, and moved to Taos.

For the people of Zia, the Sun is an important being who cares for them all of their life. Being hot, the Sun is associated with the Fire Society, and the pot with its symbol belonged in the Fire Society. For the Zia people, the rays have very structured and layered meanings, and they are traditionally viewed counterclockwise. The four rays at the top (north) are the world’s directions: north, west, south, and east. The rays to the left (west) are about time: spring, summer, fall, winter. Those at the bottom (south) are about the stages of a person’s lifetime: child, adolescent, adult, and elder. Those to the right (east) are about a person’s being: heart, mind, body, and spirit.

The pot was not supposed to be out where everyone could see it. In 2000 it was repatriated to Zia Pueblo, returned to the Fire Society from which it had been taken over a hundred years earlier. The pueblo, which ethnologists supposed would die out before 1900, now has 850 people, many of whom have attended universities and know they do not have to be afraid to ask for what was taken from them in the past. So the Zia people now have their pot again, and the people of New Mexico have a beautiful state flag.

Still, a bittersweet question lingers. There is pride in the recognition of an important symbol on the state flag, but there is also regret that it has been appropriated for less lofty uses. Zia elders distinguish between versions of the symbol for religious and secular use. A rayed sun with a face is religious, while a four-rayed sun with no face is acceptable for some secular uses. Still, the two symbols are considered “brothers.” In 1994 the pueblo asked for reparations for the use of their religious symbol as a secular icon by the State of New Mexico. In 2004 a study group was put together by Governor Bill Richardson to try and bring the state and Zia Pueblo into harmony. The Zia people would like some acknowledgement that the symbol originally belonged to Zia and that it was appropriated without their knowledge or blessing. While it is an honor that New Mexico uses the Zia symbol—Zia has no objection to this—the Zia people feel that the state should compensate the pueblo for the original offense. This is an old Pueblo way of settling disputes and acknowledging the solemnity of a situation. Also to the Zia People, it would seem polite to ask before the symbol is used in a commercial venture. For instance, if people want to use the symbol on a coffee cup would it be too painful to ask to use it first? Perhaps a small amount could be contributed to the Zia school’s scholarship fund as a gesture of respect. The Pueblo of Zia has a real desire to resolve this issue in a nonadversarial matter. After all, though Zia has been here longer than the state or the flag, it is Zia’s state, and the Zia people’s flag, too.

Peter Pino is the tribal administrator of Zia Pueblo. Dody Fugate is the curator of the H. P. Mera Collection at the Laboratory of Anthropology.