By Donald T. Healy
[This paper was delivered at the 16th International Congress of Vexillology, in Warsaw, Poland, 30 June, 1995 thru 5 July. 1995]
As the twentieth century comes to a close, we have witnessed a burgeoning of national flags unsurpassed in vexillological history. We have seen entire panoplies of flags go, come, go again and a third and sometimes fourth generation appear inside the Russian Federation, alone! The disintegration of central and eastern Europe into small tribal states where the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia used to exist shows the power and force of one's ethnic identity and heritage upon politics and cartography.
Within the United States, the identity and heritage of our indigenous peoples, too, has begun to manifest itself through increasing desires by those indigenous peoples to express themselves in the trappings of nationhood.
The Native Americans, or Indians of the United States have traditionally been a non-vexilliferous people, relying upon costume, art and totems to distinguish themselves from one another and from the European dominated culture that is the modern United States.
In the last fifty years that has been changing. It is still true that the bulk of the 500 plus recognized and unrecognized tribes found within the United States are without flags, but an increasing number have started using this form of symbolism that hitherto was alien to their culture. It may not be unreasonable to assume that the vast majority of federally recognized Native American nations do, as of 1995, indeed have flags. At the end of this report is a chart listing those nations that definitely do not have tribal flags as well as those known to have flags, but for which insufficient information was available. The number of nations with flags, both those reported and those without sufficient data, far exceeds the number of nations still without a flag.
For the purpose of this paper, I shall refer to all those mentioned by the terms tribe or nation although the Native Americans utilize many other terms in referring to themselves such as band, community, village, rancherio, etc.
It should be remembered that under United States law, federally recognized Indian tribes constitute sovereign, independent "domestic" nations. They are not subject to laws enacted by state governments except when agreed to by the tribe. Their chiefs, presidents, governors or whatever term they use to identify the head of their people are, by an executive memorandum issued by President Clinton on 29 April, 1995, treated with the same regard as any representative of another government engaged in government to government relations with federal offices.
The Native American, like any other ethnicity, encompasses a vast variety of socio-economic strata including some of the poorest in America and some of the wealthiest niches in society. In 1994, for example, the Pequot Indians of Connecticut were sufficiently wealthy that they could contribute ten million dollars to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. toward the construction of a Museum of the Native Americans, the largest single donation the project had ever received! In the 1930s the wealthiest ethnic group in the United States was the Chickasaw nation of Oklahoma, thanks to the discovery of oil on the land that constituted their "historic tribal area", a term used to refer to lands formerly constituting a reservation in Oklahoma that was declassified when Oklahoma achieved statehood in 1907.
While wealthy Native Americans are not uncommon, many also suffer in the worst conditions of poverty. Native Americans as a unit find themselves with the highest incidents of alcoholism and one of the highest incidents of suicide in the United States. To combat this, many Native American activists have encouraged a return to their traditional ways and lifestyles.
The adoption of flags by tribes can be seen in some instances as a tool to instill pride in the hearts and minds of people too often forgotten and abused by the federal and state governments with which they were involuntarily saddled.
Another major inducement for Native American peoples to adopt flags has been their increasing involvement in the gaming industry. More than ninety-five tribes now offer gambling in one form or another on federally recognized reservations. This has brought millions of visitors to lands they would never have thought to visit. With this massive influx of visitors tribes now find themselves in need of a readily acceptable symbol of sovereignty. Replies to surveys and phone inquiries in at least a dozen cases have directly attributed the adoption of a flag to the opening of a casino or bingo parlor. The impact of gambling upon the adoption of flags within the Native American community may be a unique occurrence in vexillological history.
How the data was collected
To seek out these flags, possibly the largest body of sovereign national symbols that remain unknown to the general vexillological community, a major effort was undertaken. Many reservations throughout the United States were visited including ones in California, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Montana, both Dakotas, Minnesota, Florida, New Jersey and Maine. Surveys were sent out to over two hundred Indian nations and reservations ranging in size from the Santa Ysabel Rancheria in California with a population of under two hundred and fifty residents to the great Navajo nation that exceeds 250,000 citizens. Where no response was received by the mail survey, follow up phone calls were placed to all whose phone number could be found.
This report in no ways can be considered conclusive. Many tribes failed to respond to the survey, including some that are known to have flags. Many tribes listed in the directory utilized no longer could be reached at the listed address. For those that had phones listed several were disconnected or converted into fax lines.
Some of the flags that are included have been reported on in the past, but are part of this presentation to make it as comprehensive as possible. There are some that have been seen only in NAVA News (the newsletter of the North American Vexillological Association), and hopefully NAVA will continue to publish detailed stories of Native American symbols for years to come. The vast majority of the flags you are about to read about have never before appeared in any vexillological media, much less been presented to a wider audience. It is hoped that this report will provide vexillologists and others with a greater understanding of Native Americans, their rich histories and their use of symbols.
Any and all people accessing this document are requested to contribute information concerning additional tribal flags not listed, amend or correct errors and omissions they find, and help in any way to achieve a complete compendium of flags of the Native American peoples of the United States.
Don Healy (Donh523@aol.com) - 523 Centre St.- Trenton, NJ 08611