Sunday, February 7, 2021

The shady side of New Mexico's state symbol.

I might have mentioned a time or two that I relocated to New Mexico last summer. During the run-up to the holidays, I thought I might pick up a Yule tree ornament that commemorated my move (rather than anything else that happened in 2020, like, oh, say, the virus). Immediately I thought of the zia, the state symbol that graces our state flag, our license plates, and a whole bunch of other stuff that's made in New Mexico.

Then a friend suggested I rethink that idea. He'd heard that using the symbol was bad luck. Then we both did some digging, and it turned out it's not bad luck, exactly, but bad form -- or more accurately, it's cultural appropriation.

Wikimedia Commons | CC 1.0

The zia is an appealing symbol, all right, with its clean lines pointing to the four directions and its circle in the heart of it all. It looks kind of like a sun. And in fact, that's how it started -- the original design belongs to Zia Pueblo and it symbolizes the sun, which in their culture is the father of all things. 

If the sacred symbol had stayed within the pueblo, it wouldn't have been a problem. But wouldn't you know, some ethnologists from the Smithsonian Institution showed up there around the turn of the 20th century and shortly after that, one of their most sacred pots disappeared from the pueblo and turned up in Santa Fe. This pot had a stylized sun face in the center, with three rays extending from each of the cardinal directions. Then in 1923, a white couple named Harry and Reba Mera reworked the symbol for a contest for a state flag design sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution. (New Mexico didn't become a state until 1912.) The Meras had just a circle in the center and four rays, not three, on each side. They made the sun symbol red and the background yellow because those are the dominant colors on the Spanish flag, and Spanish heritage runs deep around here.

The Meras won. And now the symbol is everywhere.

The Zia aren't happy about it, as you might imagine. But by the time they petitioned the federal government to protect their sacred symbol, they hit a bureaucratic snafu: too much time had passed. The symbol had to stay in the public domain. 

The Zia had one more avenue -- state government. In 2000, the pueblo asked the state legislature for payment of $74 million -- a million dollars for every year the state had used the symbol without permission. They didn't get their money, but they did get a state Senate memorial in 2012 acknowledging the pueblo's contribution to state culture and promising to work on "reconciliation, mutual understanding and cooperation with respect to the use of the sacred Zia sun symbol." 

After learning all that, I decided not to hang a zia on my Yule tree. It might not be bad luck, but I'd like to stay in the good graces of both folks who have been here a whole lot longer than I have and their deities, too.


These moments of sacred sunlit blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

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