Book Review

Flags of the Native Peoples of the United States

Book by: Donald T. Healy

Reviewed by: Kevin Harrington, President of the Canadian Flag Association (CFA) and editor of Flagscan, CFA's quarterly journal

Published by: North American Vexillological Association, 1977 North Olden Ave. Ext., Ste. 225, Trenton, NJ 08618-2193, U.S.A. $25

Donald T. Healy's work is the first publication to document with accuracy and authority the flags and seals used by the Indians and other Native Peoples of the United States. The author, an American computer analyst, is a scholar and lecturer on flags. (He has twice won the North American Vexillological Association's William F. Driver Award for excellence of presentations in vexillology at the annual conferences of that body). He has visited reservations in many states from California and the Northwest, across the northern tier of states from Montana to Minnesota, plus Maine, New Jersey, and Florida. He has communicated with nations or tribes by letter, telephone, E-mail, and survey questionnaires and found, as of 1995, 136 nations with flags. (The author's research on the Navajo flag was first published in NAVA News in 1988).

Native Americans will be well-served by this work as in it they will see the great variety of their experiences and yet the commonage of the symbols - devices, arrangements, colors, numbers - that comprise individual band or nation flags. Anyone interested in U.S. history, ethnic studies, the culture of the first peoples, cannot but be thrilled at the scope and detail of this book. Teachers, librarians, students, government representatives and workers will welcome the concise report given for each nation or band, the tribal location and background, and the analysis of the flags - description, origin, significance, pertinent dates. The work should inspire many Americans to rework their thinking on Native Peoples with the understanding that this report gives of their proud symbols.

The book's value is greatly enhanced by a companion full-color chart (*) of 130 historic and contemporary flags of Native Peoples. To paraphrase Dr. Whitney Smith, the first researcher of Indian flags, the chart splendidly presents at a glance all the current Native flags in a format that leads to easy recognition, memorization, comparison, or just simple contemplation. The arrangement of the Native Peoples in the text and on the chart is alphabetical and a key-word index helps find related groups.

What does a flag mean to Native Peoples? Are flags really a part of Indian culture? A flag may simply be a modern medium on which Indian culture is written. Healy says it is one of the necessary trappings of sovereignty for the Native Peoples, a vehicle of identity, but it is also a sign, today's bearer of an ancient culture. It encompasses religious and philosophical viewpoints - oneness with nature, respect for environment. It includes historic milestones - The Trail of Tears, the signing of treaties, and even political messages - a wish for unity and affiliation, a demand for recognition. Yet there is a traditional object in Indian culture that resembled a flag and was used to identify or signify, to guide or direct - this was the coup stick of the Comanche or the spear with feathers. Healy tells us the Miami of Indiana attach twelve eagle or turkey feathers to a spear and refer to it as their flag. The author points to two acts of legislation that had much to do with the adoption and increased use of flags by the Native Peoples - namely the Native American Sovereignty Act and the Native American Gaming Act.

Many state and civic flags in the U.S. do not exemplify the best in good flag design. They are often complicated with seal images rather than simple devices, using words rather than symbols, and are uninspired in the choice of a field color. So Healy hardly faults Native Americans when some of their flags bear a complicated seal, a long line of words, or a white field without meaning. Many nations, he adds, such as the Navajo, Comanche, and the Colorado River Indian Tribes have put considerable thought into their flag and have produced strikingly handsome designs.

What are the devices in use on Native American flags? The arrow, bow, spear, coup stick, peace-pipe, tepee, hide or skin, head-dress, bear, turtle, panther, eagle, wolf, wampum belt, conifer, fish, the sun and the stars - these predominate and in these we are immediately involved with the religion, legends, history and cultural practices of the Native Peoples. Each of these devices is carefully examined and explained by the author often through the words of a Chief, Elder or the Native designer. Healy presents the flag of the Tohono O'odham (the "desert people," formerly called Papago, of Arizona) as a most effective design with its colors and its one device. It is a bicolored flag, yellow over purple -- the sun breaking over a distant mesa, or the colors of the glorious Saguaro cactus flower. Crossing the field is a red staff >from which hang eleven feathers for the eleven districts of the huge reservation. Words are used - the tribal name - but they appear on a pennant or ribbon placed above the actual flag. The flag is even made right on the reservation by its own people .

Healy concludes with the hope that books and reference sources, including electronic ones, that show and discuss flags "recognize that the United States consists of more than just fifty sovereign states - there are hundreds of sovereign nations to be acknowledged as well".

(*) The 19in x 25in chart is available postpaid at $12 (folded) or $15.95 (rolled, mailed in a tube) from TME Co.Inc., Tel: (860) 354-0686; Fax: (860) 354-2786; E-mail: chart@tmealf.com

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