Elliott Johnson, Boston, column: For North Dakota, a new and evocative flag
By Elliott Johnson BOSTON -- Rockefeller Plaza in New York is known for being home to NBC studios and Radio City Music Hall, its Art Deco buildings with accompanying sculptures and the annual lighting of the Christmas tree. Lesser known but no le...
By Elliott Johnson
BOSTON -- Rockefeller Plaza in New York is known for being home to NBC studios and Radio City Music Hall, its Art Deco buildings with accompanying sculptures and the annual lighting of the Christmas tree.
Lesser known but no less charming to visitors is the magnificent display of flags surrounding a plaza containing an ice skating rink in wintertime.
This was the setting when I visited on a brisk day last year to find, high above the twirling skaters, flags of all the U.S. states and territories on display.
Naturally, I set out to find North Dakota's, but this took a lot longer than I would have guessed.
It was a calm day, and because about half of the American state flags are dark blue with a state seal in the center, many of the flags looked the same.
Maryland, New Mexico, and Hawaii stood out. But North Dakota blended in with the likes of Kentucky, Maine, Idaho, New York, Vermont and more than a dozen other flags.
After a long stroll around the rink, I finally found it and wondered how many of my fellow visitors -- native New Yorkers, travelers from other states, tourists from overseas -- ever would notice North Dakota in the crowd.
What images of my home state could the generic eagle and banner stating "North Dakota" conjure up?
And what good is a flag that requires the observer to get up close and squint to see what it represents?
Vexillology is the study of flags, and the North American Vexillological Association has addressed this concern in a list of five basic principles of good flag design.
Because the purpose of a flag is to represent a person, place or thing even when viewed at a distance or while moving, a flag design should:
** Be simple enough that a child can draw it from memory.
** Use meaningful colors or patterns that relate to what it symbolizes.
** Use two or three basic colors.
** Not feature letters or seals.
** Be distinctive.
North Dakota's state flag violates all of these guidelines.
In the early 1950s, the North Dakota National Guard voiced concerns about carrying a flag nearly indistinguishable from the regulation Army colors. A commission was established and concluded the design wasn't symbolic of our state; but the commission's proposal to change the flag ultimately was defeated in the 1953 legislative session.
Nevertheless, a beautiful state coat of arms was created as a result of this activity. It is distinctively North Dakotan and the proud hallmark of the governor's flag.
The shield of this coat-of-arms -- the main, central portion -- is a yellow arrowhead with a thick, green "bend" (a diagonal stripe going from top left to bottom right).
The bend contains three yellow stars, equally spaced, running along its length. And above the shield is a crest made up of a bow with splayed arrows, signifying the tribes indigenous to our state.
A new flag more in line with the vexillological association's guidelines could use elements from the coat of arms.
For the sake of simplicity (the first principle of good design!), consider a yellow flag containing only the green diagonal bend and its three yellow stars.
As described in the North Dakota Century Code, the stars denote the trinity of government: legislative, executive and judicial. Each star is given the heraldic value of 13 to signify the original colonies, and the accumulated numerical value of these identifies that North Dakota was the 39th state admitted into the union.
Three stars are also found on the coat of arms of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Of course, the colors allude to our grand, open spaces: the yellow and green of ripening grain and abundant pastures.
This design is bold, uncluttered and much more descriptive of North Dakota than a banner simply asserting those words.
Unlike residents of states with large populations and scattered metro areas, North Dakotans are very "state conscious" and view our whole turf as one large community. For example, imagine the joy you'd feel when meeting a fellow North Dakotan by surprise at the base of our flag in Rockefeller Plaza. I doubt the same excitement would arise between visitors from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
This is even more reason that our chief state symbol must be unique, representative and inspired.
We need a flag that distinguishes us from all other states and countries in the world -- even when it hangs limp on a windless day.
A native of Mandan, N.D., Johnson is a fourth-generation North Dakotan. He currently lives near Boston.